Only after recovering from the ridiculousness of Akhuti was I comfortable with the idea of venturing out again; I was most excited for a decent hot shower. To begin planning the details of our next excursion, a web of phone calls were made between six friends in the TLG Group #43: Chris H., Chris P., Zach, Jon, Derek and myself. Initially, more people than the six who made the journey had been invited, but obviously it had not worked out for them to attend, likely unable or unwilling to take the Friday off from work such as we were eager to do. In the end, six made for a great number, allowing for a variety of personalities yet still small enough to interact with the locals without looking like an intimidating ex-patriot mob of buffoonery.
Coincidentally it was going to be Derek's birthday the weekend we had all set aside for our getaway, or perhaps I could admit we chose this particular weekend because it was Derek's birthday, irregardless, the dates of his birth and our getaway were much in the same. Ultimately settling on a choice within a group of friends is never easy, no matter how simple the decision should be; what restaurant, what movie, what toppings on the pizza, etcetera. The choice not to extend invitations to female friends of our group was easy and all agreed upon and only made the process of choosing where to go infinitely easier, but by no means seamless.
Though it was late in the hiking season, I wanted desperately to return to Mestia, a collection of villages in Northwestern Georgia, Svaneti region, within the tall peaks of the Caucasus Mountains which separate abusive mother Russia from her formerly adopted Georgia. I had the others opinions to consider however, and understood there were many other worthy destinations I had not experienced in the country. As a group, we had to also consider the logistics of our 'eqskursia', such as; cost, geography and time of travel (as were traveling from different areas of the countryside), and the coordination between one another.
Zach quickly rose to the occasion by firmly suggesting Borjomi, a vacation spot in the mountains of the Caucasus minor popularized by the Russian elite back when Georgia lived under the roof of the USSR. It was here that natural mineral springs were found and thought to possess healing powers, after a governor's daughter was healed there. With skepticism I thought, by simply replacing the hourly consumption of fiery, homemade vodka with mineral-rich water was all that was needed to heal the girl; and thus gave the water supply its otherworldly healing reputation and supplying future generations with continuously flowing placebo effect. How satisfying does a glass of tap water taste after a night downing a few too many? And how much better is a single Gatorade seem compared to water at reversing that pesky hangover? Other than Borjomi, the only other solid plan we agreed upon was a day trip to Vardzia and to use Kutaisi, Georgia's second most populace city, as our meeting place Thursday evening after work.
On the Thursday of, goofy Chris and I met with as-to-be-expected difficulties when we tried to catch marshrutkas out of our respective town's to meet up before heading down to Kutaisi together. His marshrutka was white, he told me, and it had left Senaki and would be driving through my town soon. Then is wasn't. Then it was? He called back again to tell me this time it was in-fact leaving, but the driver was hesitant to make the trip on account to a near empty bus, and this had caused him to slowly troll for potential passengers on the way. I sat on the curb of Abasha's main road unable to estimate when the correct mini-bus would troll by me; I sat waiting for a white marshrutka to drive by with a sign in the window that read 'KUTAISI'. The tricky part wasn't in reading the sign fast enough before the bus zipped by, it was reading the sign fast enough before the bus zipped by, in Kartuli script. Three angry Georgians drove away from Abasha in white marshrutkas before finding the one Chris was on, having waived them down, peaked inside to see no obvious sign of a gangly, blond kid towering over locals, wearing a goofy smile and giggling; like a beacon of untarnished positivity among the stone-faced, macabre locals. We arrived in Kutaisi in common fashion; cramped, uncomfortable and questioning what possessed these men to drive the way they did.
Though far later to arrive than we originally anticipated, Chris and I were still hours ahead of the others. Zach had a long trip out of the mountains in Adjara leading up to his meeting with Jon and the British Chris in Batumi, before all set off to Kutaisi. Derek's departure, whose village was close enough in proximity to both big Chris and I in Samegrelo, had been wonderfully postponed when his teachers caught wind of his birthday and threw him a Supra celebration, complete with drinking horns and ceremonial bowls, called 'ganskhvavebuli'. Chris and I reserved some beds at the Hostel Kutaisi, negotiated a better price, then set out to grab a bite at a nearby restaurant from the hostels recommendation; which ended up being quite expensive with easily forgettable taste.
With the understanding that we had plenty of time before any one of the guys showed up, Chris and I set off to find the Bagrati Cathedral somewhere resting on a hilltop in the city of Kutaisi. The easy way would've had us ask a taxi to take us there, but with nothing but time in our schedule to somehow fill, we decided instead for the excitement of walking, in combination with the thrills and comfort of public transportation. We walked for a while in the November rain and had nearly finished crossing a bridge when we looked up river, then up the hill beyond to find a large 'iglesia' with an ugly blue tin roof. That's probably it there, we agreed, which means we've been walking in the wrong direction for some time, we agreed again. After a few moments of speculation we saw a woman hustling, trying to motivate her son, and get herself out of the downpour. She stopped at our plea for directions and told us we needed to get on the number one bus. At that moment the number one bus was mushing through the puddles toward us pulling away from the curb on the other side of the street threatening to leave us stranded in the wet. Calmly, she waived it down for us by crossing in front of it flapping her wrist to the ground. We hopped aboard and motored on.
After disembarking the bus, correcting another slight misdirection and a small walk up a lovely cobblestone street, we arrived at our destination. Bagrati Cathedral was both, larger than I expected and more interesting; to see where the tattered blocks from the original construction in 1003 joined with the sharp edged portions of recent restoration after "a Turkish explosion brought down" the structure in 1692. Most of it had been rebuilt except for what the sign on site called a 'patio' on either side of the main hall. Here, huge columns the size of impressive old-growth cedars common back home were stumps rising only a few feet from the ground where one could imagine how the columns used to support what would have been a lovely open-air, semi-covered promenade. At the large front doors, I could see original blocks with fantastically detailed crosses and totems carved into the stone. Left, above the door, perfect circles exhibiting a Celtic-like inner design, chiseled with unbelievable precision trumped the right side, where only plain circles, to give the illusion of symmetry, were restored. A lack of local artist skill or financial backing prevented any attempts at recreating the same detail, I supposed. Around the left side stood a horrid, modern abomination and was likely one of the reasons Unesco had added Bagrati to its World Heritage in Danger list. The cheap, brightly colored, hideous tin roof was likely another reason, we speculated, which didn't fit at all with the cathedrals demand for grandeur.
The real intrigue of the site lay fairly innocuous, East of Bagrati, or directly behind the 11th century cathedral. These ruins are considerably older than Bagrati, dating back to the 6th century, ruined in 1769 in a battle between Imereti (a region in Georgia with Kutaisi as its capital) and Russian forces "as they fought to take Kutaisi from the Turks." We climbed the walls, timidly at first, until we saw heavily used paths within. Standing on top of the wall I could see a church still erect in the center, chained and locked from the outside and the remnants of an impressive medieval wall. Nearer to us, however, between crumbled stone walls that would've once been corridors opening into various chambers and overgrown with vegetation, lay a magnificent wine cellar. I jumped down, imagining what it must have looked like fifteen hundred years ago, pretending the walls still stood and I was walking between them. In the wine cellar itself, a collection of huge clay pots lay submerged in the soil. Grass had overtaken the floor except for neat circles where the buried clay casks made it easy to spot. This is where the monks, after collecting the grapes, beginning in early October, would have mashed them, poured them into the pits, covered with a lid, then further buried in sand where it was left to ferment. When the wine was thought to be ready, the sand and lids would be removed and a canteen or jug on a rope would be lowered into the mixture and resurrected containing the blood of Christ.
After exploring the ruins Chris and I did our best to return to our Hostel, with expected difficulties. We saw the number one bus driving in the opposite direction from where we had originally come, and thought this was enough to get us home; take bus X from point A to point B, to return, take bus X from point B to A. We were mistaken. I wondered, as I often did, why things couldn't be so simple here. 'It's just Georgia being Georgia.' We hopped off and walked back in the drizzle where we met three of the guys, making five.
We eventually received a call from Derek, who was the only one yet to arrive of our half-dozen, who said he was now in Kutaisi. We waited for him to show at the Hostel and let him settle in a bit. Then, as was a great moment of excitement and show of gluttony, we went out and absolutely punished an unhealthy portion of McDonald's. This was one of the most bitter-sweet moments of my life. My body was never so confused as to whether I felt comfortably satisfied while congruently uncomfortably guilty.
After McDonald's that evening, we washed down the regret with a 'ludi' at a local brewery. Upstairs was large and awkwardly spacious with only half a dozen tables within what felt like an airplane hangar. I somewhat regretted my lapse into making quick work of a Big Mac meal when I was in a country with so many culinary positives. I set out to regain my sense of travel, to experience something local, which I had lost as soon as I entered the golden arches. I ordered authentic, a local beer by the name of 'kvass,' while the others ordered something more familiar. It was just gross. It tasted like bread dough which had been mixed with grape juice and left on a counter until a birthday when it was legally allowed to buy pornography. I wanted a lager. I wanted a lucky lager in a cramped bar in a small town on Vancouver Island, in beautiful British Columbia. I was failing miserably in my attempt at adventure, I missed home this night, and I allowed myself an evening to pout, but I promised myself I would recalibrate for the rest of the weekend.