Thursday, August 18, 2011
The dinosaur tracks were of course the big draw for me. But Sataplia nature reserve itself is a really pretty stretch of hilly land mostly covered by "Colchian" forest and, when we went, shrouded in warm mist.
Our first stop was the dinosaur track pavilion. I'll admit to low expectations; someone had said you needed to use your imagination to see anything. But that made it all the more incredible. These were very clearly dinosaur footprints, so my imagination was left free to design a saddle for my pet dinosaur.
There were a number of signs making mention of some of my best childhood friends -Iguanodon, Stegosaurus, and so on - but I'm pretty sure they weren't the species represented. But then, I am, for reasons that can only be attributed to poor life choices, not a paleontologist.
Anyway, BP has funded a really nice, climate-controlled pavilion to protect the prints from further damage and decay, and I have to say that if a gigantic mega-corporation wants to mask the brutality and destructiveness of the market system, giving me a day with dinosaur footprints is a good (ahem) step.
From the pavilion, we walked through the Colchian forest (featuring very tasteful statues of dinosaurs), to a wooden walkway along a cliff side. The mists were covering what is usually a pretty broad panorama, but on the stone side of the cliff, the guide pointed out the dwellings of the wild honeybees who (he said) gave Sataplia ("Place of Honey") its name.
A bit further on, we came to the entrance of Sataplia cave. Perpetually cool and damp, the cave featured an underground river, semi-translucent stalactites, a variety of different formations, and a famous stone shaped by water to resemble a human heart. I'm a sucker for caves, especially those with glitzy artificial lighting, and this was a good one.
Sataplia is a world treasure. I know I'm 100% the target audience - forested hills, honeybees, caves, and dinosaurs - but this is the kind of thing that I wish everyone could see. It wasn't raw majesty on the scale of Svaneti, but you get something strange running down your spine when you see footprints made in soft mud in days when those mountains from the last few posts hadn't even been born.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
After scanning through our pictures from our Svaneti trip once more, we realized that we still had a ton we wanted to show off. Hence, one more blog post, lots more pictures and a few more stories from our trip.
The start of the trail was steep--we climbed up a kilometer over the first 2.5 kilometers. Around noon, we made it to the crest of the first big hill, the overlook by the iron cross. We also ran into a few sets of other hikers who had come up the hill from the other side, our intended route of descent. (These fellow hikers were an interesting bunch. We had some nice conversations with the pair of Czech tourists, met two Poles with whom we jointly cursed the two Dutch girls who got a jeep ride to the top and were skipping happily down past us telling us that the top was only 20 minutes away, and listened to the exhausted panting of the Japanese man who had walked his mountain bike up the mountain upon finding it too steep to actually ride up.)
Monday, August 8, 2011
Ushguli, a community of about 200 people, is claimed as the highest year-round human settlement in Europe, in the neighborhood of 2,200 meters. It stands 45 kilometers from Mestia on a winding dirt and gravel road cut by streams and rockslides and closed by snow six months of the year. We knew we wanted to visit while we were in Svaneti, but it proved trickier than expected. Gizo’s car, faithful as it had been on the miserable road up, just wouldn’t be a match for the Ushguli road, and private jeeps and marshutkas were asking prices that could have significantly impacted the U.S. debt ceiling.
So we went about it the old-fashioned way, lying in ambush for foreign-looking tourists and seeing if they would be willing to share a ride. We yelled at people on the street and bothered them at their hotel breakfasts, and, since the universe seems to like this sort of thing, it finally paid off. We met a group of Polish tourists going to Ushguli by minibus with a few extra seats and a guide willing to let us join in for a reasonable fee.
And we set off. Just outside of town we stopped at a mineral spring. The water here is carbonated and really high in iron – the local folks came with plastic bottles that looked like they’d been covered in rust. A few minutes later, we came to a beautiful view of double-peaked Mt. Ushba, one of the great mountaineering challenges of the Caucasus, and a ubiquitous symbol of Svaneti.
And then we settled in, enjoying some good conversation with our fellow travelers; the marshutka rolled over gravel and water, along cliff edges and through mud. The 45 kilometers took about 3 hours, including a brief stop at the “Lover’s Tower,” built, according to legend, for a Svan girl pining for her love who drowned in the river below.
Finally, in the early afternoon, we made it to Ushguli. It’s a kind of beauty that even pictures can’t do justice to, the blue sky and the hills greener than hills are in August, the towers rising under the white peak of Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain. Horses and cows on the hills looking healthier and happier than we’ve seen in a long time.
We were given a few hours to do what we would, so we struck off along the river in the direction of Shkhara. As we walked out onto the track, we could hear people singing in Svan over the next hill. We first went to a little church on the hill, then set off to follow the river for an hour or so, passing some tourists on foot, horseback, or jeep, but more often than not finding ourselves alone with the springs running down the hills, the cold river, and the sound of stones.
We came to a school-bus sized chunk of glacier abandoned by the summer retreat, and watched it slowly melting in the sun, before it was time to turn back.
I know we might well be singing a different tune under feet of snow in October and cut off from the rest of the world until May, but just then, we felt like we could have put down our bags and stayed there forever.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
Friday, August 5, 2011
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
The blog book (as we all informally called it while it was searching for a title) is really a cool thing. Sam and I had three different blog posts (and lots of pictures) selected for inclusion. We’ll get copies and bring them home to show off to everyone, and if we find that they end up being available elsewhere (pretty unlikely, I think, but they do have an ISBN number, so who knows?), I’ll be sure to let you know.
Each of the volunteers who contributed to the book were asked to speak a little bit about why they blog and what they write about. Afterwards they distributed books to attendees. Also invited to the event were several Georgian students and some other Tbilisians, who all swarmed us for autographs after the formal part of the evening was completed. It seemed a little funny, but I guess it’s something we’ll have to get used to as published authors.