This travel tale was written by Don Martinson, Nat Hab’s Director of Travel Industry Relations
Having just returned from a 2 week trek in the Caucasus Mountains of the Republic of Georgia – known as the “Mountains of Poetry” – I think the most memorable part was witnessing the character of this remote and pristine area’s people.
I met a mountain culture that have endured millennia of invasions: Turks from the West, Persians from the South, Mongols from the East and, more recently, invaders from the Russian regions of Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan to the North. The result of these attacks is a unified people with a fierce passion for their culture, land and religion.
On day 7 of our trek through stunning alpine scenery, shepherd corrals, glacier-fed rivers and primitive villages, we arrived in Shenako. This was the end point of our 100+ kilometer hike through the Tusheti Protected Area. After dinner, I sat with a few local villagers, drinking cha cha – a Georgian fortified wine that could double as MIG fuel. Through the translation of our local expedition leader, Eka, I heard toasts and poems dedicated to life, family, friends, food, drink, mountains, God and defeating invaders – all things dear to Georgians. Each toast would conclude with clinking glasses together and “Gaumarjos!” – Georgian for Cheers!
One of the local men, a slight man near fifty named Zao, toasted his pet dog that was attacked and killed by a shepherd dog earlier that day. Tears poured down his ruddy cheeks as he recounted the many special things his little dog did and how she (Keli) was more a family member than a pet. This explained the somber mood many of our village hosts displayed that evening.
Zao then boasted of his strength by removing his shirt to show his impressive biceps. He stated he was born three months early, didn’t cry for the first four months of life and was beat up daily by bigger kids. All this made him tough.
But what got me were the scars on his torso – easily 300 stitches worth. He explained all of them, the most shocking of which was the knife wounds resulting from an argument with a Dagestanian. He went on to say that, after the argument, as he lay bleeding to death behind the church in which his mom was praying. Miraculously, he was rescued by a Georgian Army helicopter, summoned by his friends and piloted by another friend. He was flown to Tbilisi and spent six weeks in the hospital.
I was now on a roller coaster ride of emotions, fueled by cha cha. Zao accepted my condolences and gave me a big hug after I shared a story of losing my pet dog less than a year ago. He challenged me to an arm wrestle, which I wisely declined. He then asked if the five of us remaining at the table could go to his backyard to light candles and toast Keli’s grave.
So we struck out under a beautiful full moon and stumbled our way to the backyard of very simple mountain home. We lit five candles for the years Keli was part of the family, placed them on a fresh grave and each made a toast Gaumarjos! Zao explained, again with tears streaming, that he put Keli to rest in the same position she would sleep on his bed at night. With just a little bit left in our glasses, we all poured the remaining cha cha on the grave and called it a night.
With our easy access to information, anyone can get an idea of the natural beauty the Caucasus Mountains hold. You can learn all about the history of this Orthodox Christian country, surrounded by Islamic states. You could probably even find some Georgian cuisine in a major city. But experiencing Georgia and the Mountains of Poetry firsthand is the only way to understand this wonderful culture’s own fierce passion.