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Tbatan

First George called Devi hiking. Lets go to Tbatan. Devi is already an old-timer in Pankisi and, having withered in the village all winter, agreed enthusiastically. And called me with them. Nearly dead after my last book translation effort I was immediately in.

Devi will probably appear in many posts, so I should describe her a bit. From her fathers side from some Indonesian royalty, from her mothers side a Baltic German from Pidula manor in Saaremaa island, Estonia. With all that blue blood Devi is still a most amazingly crazy type, who’s running her small mountain guide business in Pankisi valley and Tusheti, preferring less known and less tourist-infested trails. Speaking (among others) Chechen and Georgian. Knows all the locals and mountain trails. She is also unbelievably talented trouble magnet. To get caught by the border guard next to the Russian border, in Chechen national clothes, with maps of the border areas, huge knife and a textbook of Arab language – that takes some serious talent. All in all – a golden find for a hiking nut like me.

There was some discussion about snowshoes, but Devi and George, both experienced hikers, said that we will need them. I brought huge old plastic snowshoes from Mogzauri and we were ready to go.

Wake-up on the Friday morning at 5, at 6 is Gio on the Dolidze street corner, then we pick up Devi from Alvani and around 9 we were in the last village of Pankisi valley, Zibakhevi, at around 750 m. Villagers said the snow would be over our head on Tbatan (but they had not been there). Car remained to Devis friends place and off we went. Weather was so warm that all the jackets and fleeces went to the bag pretty soon and, unbelievable as it is, remained there until the nightfall.

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Zibakhevi. Everything is still fine.

After Batsara bridge we turned left into the side valley and a bit after the nature reserve rangers house the trail started to zigzag up the ridge towards South-West. We checked with the ranger and he thought the snow on Tbatan would be up to the breast (but he had not been there either, no, really, normal people do not go to such places at such a time). Weather was slightly overcast, smell of the spring was in the air and first spring flowers were out. Warm and nice. Maybe a bit too nice. Having walked 2,5 hours Devi estimated that we are on the half way, we had done 5 km and my GPS said we’re at about 1300 metres. Other slopes had some snow, on our trail there was almost none. We already managed to complain that maybe we had been carrying those stupid snowshoes just for nothing. Or maybe we still need them somewhere on the top. Upper part of the route was visible above and there we could see mostly snow-free slope, except for very top.

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The only sight worth seeing so far was a campsite, where locals according to Devi live for few weeks in the autumn, in order to gather chestnuts. A little above the camp we reached a snowfield where George spotter bear track, and here we decided to put on the snowshoes.

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Lunchbreak. Chief makes a speach.

Soon it was clear that it is better to be careful with wishes – they could be fulfilled. On the slopes, but especially on the road there was more and more snow. As all the previous week had been warm, all this thick layer of snow had become wet and soft and even snowshoes did sink into it deep. With my light weight and huge snowshoes I had it even easy – to an extent, cause most of the trailbreaking was now on me. Devi with her tiny snowshoes could not do much and big snowshoes of George had to carry way bigger body and he was falling through all the time. Pretty soon it was clear that Devi is out of air and breaks became more and more frequent.

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At around the height of 1700 m the trail reaches a small plateau, about 300 m long. Things went out of hand. Snow was even deeper here and postholing pretty desperate. On the other side of the plateau I made an attempt to get rid of snowshoes and ascend along a steeper, snow-free part of the slope. This failed, slope was pushing us in the wrong direction and in the end we were forced to make a nasty traverse on a steep, snowy slope just in order to get back to the road. We realized that it is getting dark and time is running out. Jokes became a bit tense.

Last 150 vertical meters were a thick snow everywhere. As we stepped on the untouched snow plate it collapsed with loud sound and I started to look at the slopes above with an increasing worry. Actual avalanche danger was probably quite small though, those snowy slopes were not very steep.

We made it to the summit at about 1950 meters with the last lights. All of  sudden Devi explained that the summit hut that we had seen from afar is not actually the one she had had in mind. She wanted to descent to the saddle behind summit, supposedly there would be many huts, where we could find firewood and all. By the moment I had fuck all about any firewood. Boots were totally wet, feet were burning and last 500 vertical meters I had been breaking the trail mostly alone. I told George to take over and promised myself that I do not care about any firewood, I will stick my feet in the sleeping bag and then they can bury me in it, I won’t move anywhere.

Then we made it to the hut. We must thank Gios lamp for that, because my weak lamp would not have helped much to find the hut and Devi had even weaker one. In order to get into the shelter we had to dig first and again my cheap snowshoes were totally worth it, as we had no shovel and fancy snowshoes with tube frame were useless for digging. Now we found that there is no fireplace and window is missing. Quick grog later I thought that now it is time to realize my plan and climb into sleeping bag. Instead those two optimists started to talk that this is still not the right hut and the other hut has a fireplace and it is so much better anyway. I listened to them with a rather stupefied face, but was too tired to complain and soon we were wandering around the wide Tbatan saddle, looking for a better hut.

What we found:

  • many huts that were missing one or more walls or a roof;
  • one hut that was new and nice, but locked. Having climbed in through the window I found that there were nicely decorated cupboards, but still no fireplace. Also the window was so high that we could get Devi in and out only by throwing her, which is darn inconvenient if nature calls at night,
  • one hut, where hut experts decided that it is actually better than the hut where all our stuff was (half a kilometer away). But there was still no fireplace.

What we did not find:

  • the hut where Devi actually wanted to go. She had been on Tbatan only in summer. In fact it was her first snowshoe trek. OK.

This last hut was the place where I draw the red line to some chagrin of Gio. And said I wont repack the bag and move to the other place. Not when it is only marginally better. So we went back to home hut with Devi, somewhat morose Gio headed to take apart some other hut, because “he could dry the boots on fire in two hours for sure”. Young man, 27, I always like when people are so optimistic and full of life. Me and Devi, two elder citizens, expressed some mild doubt and then shut up.

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Brewing a grog

Devi was actually in pretty shit state, cold and she really went to sleeping bag now. My toes had warmed up after the grog so when Gio came back with timbers I started to melt the snow for breakfast on his stove. Gio himself dried his own and Devis boots on the fire in front of the hut. Quick soup warmed up even Devi and around the midnight we finally got to sleep. I took my boots off and drew them as wide open as possible, hoping that I can get my feet in again in the morning.

In the morning there was no need to press anything, boots were not frozen. Predicted -10 degrees materialised somewhere else but definitely not on Tbatan. View outside was from some fairytale and all the last night agony disappeared somewhere. Getting back home from a hike is always somewhat melancholic and this time was no different. Gio still had plenty of energy and in one moment he simply went his way. I saw with some worry that Devi is not in a good shape, so I kept close to her and watched that she gets down OK. After all, there was no hurry. Only later we heard that Gio wanted to get back to Tbilisi by five. It is so nice when young people are so optimistic. So when we made it to the Batsara bridge with Devi, we soon saw Gio driving towards us. Happy end, although  on our way back we already managed to concoct a next “interesting” plan. But not before the snow is all gone. I don’t want to see any snowshoes for a long-long time now.

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Million-dollar-view

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There really were all kinds of huts on the pass

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Tbatan summit

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This way to the bright future. Well, no. There is some farm of her friends.

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View from Tbatan dow to the pass. Behind the mountains is Tusheti

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Water. Snowmelt tasted weird, indeed.

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Will Gio drive back to meet us or drinks coffee with Chechens?

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Encounter with a Landlord

In between those new stories an old one, from Estonia. Lao used to be my favourite meditation place, hiking hut in the middle of a peat bog, but with trail to it rotten long ago. Now it was only for those who knew the way.

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Sunrise at Lao

That Saturday I made it to Lao hut around 3-4 in the afternoon. Came in from Liivi river direction, someone had been smart enough to fell a tree across the river, so this time I made it without falling in. Still got lost a bit and reached the hut from wrong direction, across the peat bog. Lazied around, eat huge lingonberries, took a walk along the old ditch back towards the river to find out where I had gone wrong. So it happened that by the evening  there were plenty of my tracks around the hut, including those coming in and those going out. The hut itself is a capital building, two floors, birdwatching tower, looks like a weird bear church. The window on a first floor was open, it was also fairly dirty, so I set up camp on a second floor. Hatch on a gable I opened so I could admire the full moon and sunrise over peatbog. It was completely dark by eight, huge full moon was climbing over the treetops so I dived into my sleeping bag.
I had just laid down when a wolfpack started its evening song barely 200 metres from the hut towards Virtsu road. I lack words to describe my feelings. It was powerful. Sleep was gone, crazy squirrel was running around on the roof and mice had a party on the first floor. It was maybe half past eleven when I heard a sound of an animal jumping to the floor downstairs. It was sure too loud for mice. Steps approached the stairs, visitor placed the paws to the first step, then silence. Sound of claws on the wooden floors told me it is some sort of dog. I became worried about my foodstuff that I had left downstairs on the table, so I took a headlamp and went down. Of course, visitor had disappeared without a sound, he had not touched my things.
I brought my backpack up and had barely climbed back to my sleeping bag when long, low howl and yelping of puppies probably marked the end of the hunt. Only then I realised that fox or raccoon dog would never wander so close to a wolfpack lair – and that it was probably the Landlord himself, who had been fooled by my many tracks and came to check the hut.
And the morning was exactly as beautiful as i had expected

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Trip to Iran: Volcanoes, Toilets and Veeraarjuufrom

Prologue. Agony on Chaukhi
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Sabalan

Thought of going to Damavand had been in my mind since I climbed Ararat back in 2009. Having considerable vertigo problem, I was looking for non-technical but high peaks and this beautiful volcanic cone looked just perfect for me. Now, living in Georgia it was all of a sudden really close and doable.

First came Valdo with his triple-summit plan – Aragats-Kazbek-Damavand. Then Lina introduced me to Ali from Tehran, who was also ready to take me to the summit. When Valdo kept silence and his project seemed to fail I messaged Ali. Soon we had a deal – I would be in Tehran on August 1, then we would do Tochal for acclimatisation, then go straight to Damavand, then I would wander around the country and enjoy well-earned rest. For a while I even had a perfect companion for that trip, but as it seems to become an annoying tradition, I managed to fuck it up in the last moment and once again I was heading to my Trip of the Year solo. Oh well, I could have really used a communicative extrovert there.

Prologue. Agony on Chaukhi.

Every soldier knows saying that no plan survives the contact with the enemy. My plan did not even make it to the Georgian border. Just weeks before leaving for Iran my tango partner Marina introduced me to Nadja. She was from Moscow and wanted to go hiking. Cool. Juta-Chaukhi-Roshka with an overnight by Abudelauri lakes seemed like a perfect warmup for a big trip, nothing too hard, max altitude just over 3000, beautiful campsite. Oh boy, was I wrong. Tbilisi was hit by a proper heat wave. And one night something happened. Headache, temperature, my own bet was mild heatstroke. Hiking higher up felt like a two-edged sword now. Physical exertion might be dangerous, but then it would be also cooler and better up there. Of course, I went.

As we set off from Juta things went immediately south. No air, no power, heart rate through the roof. I decided that I am out of form due to heat and just need push on, albeit slower. Much slower. Luckily Nadja was pretty much perfect hiking companion, calm, patient, humorous and not too talkative. If she was in any way bothered that her “experienced local super hiker guide” can barely keep pace, it did not show. I would not have noticed either, as I was more and more forced to concentrate on pushing myself forward every time the slope got steeper.

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Majestic Chaukhi massif in front of us. Pass is still somewhere left, around the corner

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Everyone becomes a passionate photographer here

Trail from Juta to Chaukhi pass takes you from about 2200 metres to 3300. Not too hard, but still serious exercise. And we (or I) were slow. By the time we saw the pass it was late enough and far away enough from Juta, that turning back was not an option either. And I was probably not very coherent anymore. Seeing a saddle and trail zigzag up there I did not bother to check GPS and headed this way. Last few hundred metres were hell. I was losing balance, head was hazy, so I concentrated boneheadedly on making a one step at a time, supporting myself with poles, just to avoid falling. Nadja went in front, I remember her calling me from above and telling I should not play hero. It was way too late, Abudelauri campsite on the other side was already closer than any other and this is where my muddled brain had now decided to go.

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Last metres to the pass. Looks like somewhere in this haze I have managed to take a picture…

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Chaukhi pass

We made a long break on a pass. I got better. We made photos. And then found that there is no trail down. I checked the GPS. Fuck. Wrong path. Correct one was few hundred metres to our left, along the jagged ridge. I looked at that ridge. Normally yes, but today no way, not in my condition. Something vaguely pathlike was snaking down and Nadja went to check. Soon she shouted that it seems to continue. First it was slippery. Then it was narrow edge along the rocks, almost scrambling. Slope was damn steep and seemed to get even steeper below us. But then we got to big path, descending improved my condition and then we were down.

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Abudelauri lakes. White is right. Blue and Green with their campsites are tiny specks further down the valley. Unholy mess of stones and bush between us

One more hour was spent on looking for the lost trail to lakeside campsite, but finally we tottered to the lakeside. Nadja was dead tired but I was completely out of it. Tent up somehow. German girl comes and offers to brew us some tea, seeing our pathetic shape. Nadja still has energy to go and bring the tea. Cooking some food and washing feet in the lake. Sleep. There was not much of it, as temperature jumped up and I was swimming in sweat all night. There have been better mornings. We took our time, walked to Roshka and Nadja hired a (bloody expensive) ride to Zhinvali. Guess I am now finally pro, getting paid for it 😉 In the evening, back in Tbilisi, I fired a message to Ali: August 1 is out of question, there is no way I would recover in time.

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Chaukhi pass, next morning. Main trail comes along the left side of the green hill. Our path descends further left, then traverses the slope to main path.

To the top

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The thing is, I had a problem now. I had told all my clients that for the August they can forget about me. They promptly did, so I would have no work. Should I go? Should I stay? Can I climb? If I can’t, what the hell I am going to do in Iran in goddamn August with its scorching temperatures? And if I don’t go, will I survive in equally scorching Tbilisi?

Fuck it. In one of the last days of July I packed my stuff, took metro to Avlabari and by the late afternoon was in Yerevan. With all the planning in ruins I had no place to stay. Got a kebab in bus station, found a wifi, located more or less decent hostel and to my big fat surprise it even had a free place. Had I known what’s waiting for me I would have skipped the kebab.

Suspicious-looking dudes in the bus station had told me that marshrutkas to Meghri and Agarak (towns/villages on the Iran border) would go from there in the morning. If there is one thing I have learned from a year in Caucasus, it’s that locals usually do not know anything. And in general they do not give a flying duck. Main thing is to give you some good and soothing news. Fortunately the guy in the hostel knew better. In the morning I took taxi to railway station and behind it, on a well-hidden square is the right place. Marshrutka ride to the border is long as Daredevils of Sassoun. First you get hot, then you get cold. Pain in the arse is most certainly not figurative expression. But finally you are in Meghri, marshrutka driver promises to take you to border for a little extra. I was lucky. Noisy and excitedly talkative fella who did not speak much of useful English, appeared to be Iranian. He did all the trading, then herded me friendly but firmly through Armenian border point. I barely managed to grab a last beer. I had weeks of dry spell ahead, after all.

In Iranian border point it took a bit more time. Mongolian Rally was crossing at the same time. When I finally got through, the Iranian was gone. Damn. I had already hoped we could share a taxi. First lesson about Iranian life came fast. Do not change 300 USD in one go. You’ll need another backpack for that. “Swimming in money” problem solved, I went and hired the only taxi standing on the parking lot. Expensive but not prohibitively so. It is more that 100 km after all. On the way out we picked up my grumpy Iranian companion who seemed to be annoyed that it had took me so long.

Road along the border is gorgeous, but turns into a boring desert soon. Second lesson of Iranian life: they always help. Grumpy guy decided I need a lunch (I did), told the taxi driver to stop and wait in an unnamed small town and got me a kebab. Thanks. Of course I did not have any idea where to stay overnight in Tabriz – for some reason there were zero reactions in CouchSurfing. So he then spent better part of an evening, commandeering our taxi around the city and trying to locate a hotel that would be cheap AND with AC. We did it. Tabriz in the evening is beautiful. I went out, found a place to eat, menu was farsi only so I just ordered a kebab. Everyone was so nice and friendly, saying hello, asking where I am from, offering help. Yay!

Next day I made a tour on the marketplace. Tabriz bazaar is a sight to behold, maybe not as big as in Tehran, but all the more beautiful. I just love how those those Oriental bazaars attack all your senses with colour, smell, taste, texture and sound. And being covered, they offer an escape from heat of the streets. I had a long talk with an old junkshop owner who spoke decent English and asked me to come and have an evening tea in something that sounded like a cross between a club and a restaurant. Plan did sound really good but it was not meant to happen. Tired of bazaar I decided to take a look at museums. In an Iron Age archaeological site lovely girl offered her help. It took about 5 minutes and I was sold. We changed contacts while suspicious or curious (or jealous) male armed guard almost poked his nose into our phones. She would finish in the museum at 3. Then we take a tour to Kandovan. Deal. Hijab or not, girls have a killer smile in Iran. Kandovan village, Shahgoli park, Roshdiye with its ropeway. Old trader and his tea did not stand a chance, sorry man. I had some problems with concentrating, though. There was some excitement, too. I got my first taste of Iranian traffic, when the husband (and driver) of my beautiful guide forgot himself into a smartphone for a second too long. On a highway. It cost him a side mirror, but it was a close call that could have ended way worse. Like, fly-on-a-windshield worse. Honest, Tbilisi traffic is chaotic and crazy, but I (or any experienced European driver) would survive in Georgia. On Iranian streets I would be dead meat soon. And smartphones cause half of the chaos.

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Kandovan. Yes, they actually live there, got electricity and all. AC not needed, rooms are nicely cool.

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Every door goes to a separate apartment. How they actually fit, remained a topological mystery to me

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From the other side of the valley

Tabriz is adorable for a city as big as it is. I was rather surprised to find that high 30ies on thermometer were quite tolerable here, something I would have considered unthinkable in my previous life. City and its surroundings would probably take full week to explore even just superficially. But now I felt myself surprisingly well, Sabalan was calling and next morning I headed for Ardabil. I might be too weak to climb Damavand. My form might me too shitty for now to climb with guys barely more than half my age. But if I do things the way I like, slow and steady, we’ll see where it gets me. Yeah, right. Slow and steady…

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Evening above Tabriz

To the top

Sabalan

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Sabalan. Our route went along the left side ridge. There are actually other and probably way less crowded routes from the West

I had plenty of time in Tabriz bus station, which I used well and restored the nice shiny baldness of my head. Barber was at first nowhere to be seen, but the owner of a tourist agency next door to it made a quick call and fed me with cookies and tea until the young guy arrived. As usual they all knew bare minimum of English words. “Veeraarjuufrom?” – “Estonia” – “E-eslovenia?!” (puzzled look). This dialog was going to be a standard for weeks to come.

During the bus ride a fella came and started to talk. Hearing I am planning Sabalan his hospitability kicked in and most of the ride he spent, trying to call various friends over bad phone coverage in the middle of the desert. The end result was that he found a group for me who would take me to Sabalan. All my weak protests were suppressed with a wide smile and a sudden loss of English comprehension. There goes my “slow and careful”, I thought. These guys were way younger than me – and group was supposed to be “advanced”. Bloody hell.

I also sent a message to Payadi who was my Couchsurfing contact in Ardabil. He picked me up and took to a small hotel right in the center. When I explained that I am going to Sabalan he immediately declared that he knows exactly the right man who goes there often and has lots of mountaineering experience. It started to dawn to me that when the battering ram of Iranian hospitability hits you, the resistance is futile. In the evening we met in a small shop, where Mortezar, my new guide, sells cold drinks and icecream. He was definitely great, easygoing guy with one fairly obvious minus – he did not speak a single word of English. Oh well.

Then Mortezar reavealed his grand plan. We would start in the morning from Ardabil with his car and drive to northern camp. From there we would climb straight to the top, camp there and descend in the morning. Wait a fucking minute. I took out my maps. Ardabil is at 1400 metres, northern camp at 2700. Meaning that for starters we would gain 1300 metres just by car. Sabalan is 4800. Meaning we would do 2100 metres straight in a day and camp up there. Total daily altitude gain 3400. That’s headache the size of a small planet. OK, I had been on 3200 just a little over week before. That would mitigate things. Maybe.

Well, don’t get me wrong. The plan was totally badass. In fact it was so badass it was irresistible. Sabalan is a freestanding volcano rising alone over the West Azerbaijan plain, with just gorgeous crater lake at the top. It would be once in a lifetime view. But after Chaukhi disaster I was pretty sure I cannot pull it off physically. I told them. I warned them. They responded with wide smiles. Fuck it, it’s a go. I have done my best.

Morning drive was mostly silent. Our helpless attempts to launch any kind of dialogue just failed. Mortezar parked the car and we started, first target being a hut 1000 metres higher at 3700m. Feeling was good. Some 50 meters above the parking lot he made a stop and started to stretch and exercise. I tried few stretches as well, in the name of solidarity.

Actual climb confirmed my fears. The guy was fast. We did easily 300-350 vertical meters per hour, which for me is a lot. At least his walking rhythm – hour of walk, 5-10 minutes break, was suitable. So to my surprise I could handle it, except when on one downhill segment he broke into run. I jogged stubbornly along, but breathing rhythm was totally broken. We made it to the hut in little over 3 hours and I was still feeling just fine. No exhaustion, no headache. Mortezar found friends here, we had dry lunch, then he disappeared to talk with others, I laid down. 1100 metres more. I am fine. I will rest and I can do it.

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Girls love to climb in Iran. Less stupid types with stupid rules, I was told…

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…but then Sabalan hut has, that’s right, a mosque. And you can drive up here. Most do. But we are not sissies, right?

Lunch break took a bit more than an hour, then Mortezar read a quick prayer and we were on our way again. From here the climb was much steeper. It took a while until muscles started to work again, but I was still surprised when Mortezar demanded a break. We had been moving 45 minutes and gained 200 metres. Barely 30 minutes and 100 metres later he wanted another break. And then another. Pretty soon it was clear than man is spent and at that speed we won’t make it to the top. In the end we camped at about 4400 metres. And I had plenty of power left. I could have made it. Before the sleep minor headache appeared, I took a painkiller and by the morning I was still in good form.

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Rock is nasty hear. Lots of sharp edges.

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Camp. Not a bad one at all, actually.

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Night is falling

After midnight we heard people. By the morning they were passing us in endless rows, it was weekends and hundreds were now making it to the summit. Mortezar had mostly recovered and soon we were moving faster than the masses around us. Summit plateau with a lake was gorgeous indeed, but crowds spoiled it a bit. maybe August is not actually the best time for Iranian mountains. Iranians love them a lot.

What mattered most for me now was that I was again in form. Damavand, here we come!

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Finally up!

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Crater lake

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Sure enough, I had to go looking for true summit as well. It took some rock climbing.

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On the way down there are some magnificent canyons.

To the top

To be continued…

Looking for Kakheti rock churches. A very different Georgia

Of course it was Devi again. Everyone knows David Gareja, but she had heard that to the east, in semi-arid areas there are more of such cave churches. So she thought we should go and take a look and maybe she can build some kind of tour around them. Then Kris with his family landed in Tbilisi, so we took them with us at least to David Gareja, to share transport  and then Devi got clients.

So we started this Saturday towards David Gareja only with Kris and his family. I would not write about DG here. Those who have been to Georgia sooner or later go there anyway and internet is full of postcard photos. I had taken a long-long look at the map and after the tour of DG I went to talk to the monks. Maybe I could take a shortcut from here toward North/North-East, and get straight to the road that goes East from Udabno. My main worry was that I would get too close to Azeri border and get into some kind of trouble there. Zaza from the monastery shop was supposed to know the lay of the land best of all, but he lost any will to talk as soon as he realised I will be going solo. Wolves and dogs would eat me and he does not want that sin on his soul. OK, let it be, I can start from Udabno.

Day 1

Aroun 3 PM our driver dropped me of at Udabno trail head, also I got 2 litres of water from him and started to walk. To be honest, landscape was somewhat underwhelming.

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Udabno trailhead

Just before the hill that’s on the left side on the picture I got my baptism of fire. Of course Devi had told me about the dogs. Her theory was that in case of an attack I should sit down and then they calm down. I had taken my ice-pick with me just in case and fortunately it was already in my hand. When I reached the farm just before that hill and road turned left I got too close to the farm, I think the distance was around 100 metres. There were 7-8 dogs, not too big but nasty. To sit down and wait seemed pretty brain-dead idea so I swung my ice-pick and moved fast, in order to avoid getting surrounded. It worked.

Next to the hill a small saddle formed and when I climbed it the change of the terrain was pretty spectacular, land in front of me looked like from some Hollywood western. Apaches or not, dogs made me worry now. I made a mental note that road seems to pass both visible farms in a safe distance. So it was and having slipped through between the farms I got my first wow-moment. I was nearing a steeper descent on the bottom of valley when couple of dozens of vultures the size of a small aircraft took flight from behind the slope, barely 15 metres from me. Down there was a dead cow, next to it two dogs and vultures had been waiting their turn. Picture did not capture much of them:

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If you look carefully, there are huge vultures in the centre of the pic. Honest word!

Having crossed the valley I found myself in the edge of a huge field, trusted my map and made a wrong turn. Some of the roads had disappeared under the field and in the end I had no other choice but to put my tent up right there, near the edge of it. I had walked some 15 km and made rather nice speed. Night was cold, near-zero and nothing much happened except for a noisy cat that walked around my tent. What kind of cat I do not know. It did sound big.

Day 2

After the breakfast and coffee my water was pretty much gone and now the only chance to get it was to approach a bigger farm or village I had seen towards the East in a previous day. Instead of a farm I found Texas – there were many small oil pumps, two old men guarding the place. I got 2 litres of water from them again and some idea how to look for the first churches. In fact they would also have had bread and cheese and even more good stuff, but this I heard only later, from a shepherd. Stupid me, should’ve asked right there. Leaving the place meant a fight again, guard dogs did not want to let me leave in one piece and oil workers were not much help. Ice pick swung and I got out.

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Texas

Few kilometres later I met an azeri shepherd and he gave me some really valuable advice – I should not approach farms, dogs will kill me. At best there is some woman at home and those are no help against dogs. Instead I should find shepherd like him and go to the house together with a man. There are no dogs out with sheep in these areas.

So that’s what I did. It was around noon when Farman rose from behind a sheep flock that was eating next to the road. He came straight to me. Later I realised that Farmans farm was right next to the road and he knew well what would happen to me if I proceed without him… Sure, that was actually a point where I should have turned South from the road, but we started to talk and he demanded that I come to his place for a lunch. So I became a shepherd for a while, we drove the sheep to the house and soon there were bread, cheese and totally wonderful curdled milk (whatever the local name is I am not sure) on the table. In the process I heard that January and February had been dreadfully cold, many sheep had died and now it is drought and exhausted animals cannot recover. But once upon a time someone from their village had gone to university in Estonia. Vow.

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Farman and his poor sheep. One lamb i had to carry to the house, it was barely able to move.

Well-fed, I left Farman and made almost a U-turn, to find the first church that my OpenHikingMap showed. Well, at least I supposed these signs on the map should mean what I am looking for. And I was right. And it was good that I returned diligently to the very first one – this, westernmost cave cluster is the biggest and best, some of them still have frescoes on the walls.

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First cave spotted

First cave was on the sunny side and located on top of a pretty high and steep talus slope. Pretty good that sun-loving inhabitant of the cave was still sluggish and sleepy after the winter. Based on its spots I would bet it was bluntnose (Levantine) viper and this was not really a good place to run from it.

I realised pretty soon that the valley in front of the caves is like a boiler room, darn hot. So I climbed back to the ridge and followed it to the East, while keeping eye on possible cave spots. The ridge was full of life. Mostly hares and turtles. There were enough of both that I finally stopped counting. Curches to the East could be divided in two – they were either ruined badly or located so high that I decided not to try my luck on that sandstone, at least not alone. Also the thirst started to hurt. Deep in my heart I was rather sceptical about Farmans assurance that water in Iori river is clean, but most of the 2l I got from oilmen I also drank during the day.

Finally the rock ridge came to an end and it was time to turn towards the Iori bridge in South-East, where I planned to camp. Way forward looked like that (Iori bridge remains behind slightly darker hill:

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This part of the trek was fairly eventless. There was a farm on the way, but a shepherd showed that that I should box it and so I did. Map also showed that there should be another church next to the Iori bridge and indeed, there were the caves, about half a kilometer to the North. I did not take a closer look, heat and thirst had simply tired me out. Also the caves seemed to be quite high in the wall.

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Iori was a smallish muddy river, with coffee coloured water. On top of that there is a watering place right next to the bridge and through all the evening one flock of sheep after another came to drink. I had no choice, so I closed my eyes and boiled the water for long time. It worked, got no problems with water. Night came and it was much warmer than previous, but as soon as darkness fell, big gang of jackals or hyenas (I do not know how to separate them by voice) gathered to drink and and have a party. Eagle owl did the solo part, imitating skillfully, but exceedingly loudly a cat, so it took a while until I got a good sleep.

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River crossing. Bridge is down the river (left) from here. I wanted to cool my hot feet and crossed right here.

Day 3

A map told me, that as my road now turns North, towards Signaghi, there must be some kind of fortress close to the road, called Didi Kvabebi. Shepherds had not heard about it, so I decided I try to find it myself. With the help of a map I found an unmarked track heading in approximately suitable direction and realized pretty soon, why shepherds had not heard about the castle.

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Didi Kvabebi from South-East. It is possible to access from here, but I decided that without water I am not so adventurous

It is not a castle but one more set of caves, located high in a rock wall, probably an old monastery. Unfortunately I was without a water. Shepherds had told me that all the valley gets their water from the river, so I did not see much point in asking it from farms. Now I had moderate thirst and not very adventurous. Kept going and hoped that I could at least find some better access route for the future. Success.

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Didi Kvabebi from the North. Yes, you can get closer from here.

I found the way towards the caves and marched on, towards the edge of the valley. Around me there was a Arcadian idyll: flock of sheep a bit further away on the slope, few hundred metres to my right man and woman were doing something with their horses. I could barely think that I should ask water from them, as my thirst was pretty bad by now, when all of a sudden a man started to run towards me. Seconds later a dog barked ahead. 5-6 huge caucasian shepherds reached about the same time as their master. That was close. Azeri man did not speak any language, but I managed to explain him I need some water and, if possible, would buy a bit bread and cheese. He just kept walking and showed that I should follow him. Dogs circled us all the time, attempting to get close to me. Came out that his farm was actually right next to the road, behind a low ridge. Death trap for a walker, considering the dogs. I expected that we turn in now, but instead we walked past and as soon as no dogs were visible he showed me that I should hide myself next to the road and he will bring me what I need. Took my bottle and went. So much about their control over the dogs…

Sure he brought some cheese, bread and water. some 100 m before the ridge I had a lunch under the only tree providing some shade:

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Bread, water and cheese. Luxurious lunch with a million-dollar-view to Iori valley

Having reached the ridge I started to swear like a sailor. Sure, map had shown straight road and level landscape. Probably I could have planned it differently. But honest, I did not expect such a sight. Now there was no choice.

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Yes you can cross it. Don’t be stupid like Vahur, get a car…

Last 15 km across this field were – obviously – less than exciting. Except that on the other edge I encountered one more farm with more aggressive dogs. Farmer did some weak attempts to call them back, but seeing that I was was keeping them in safe distance with rather blase face he did not really bother. In Kvemo Magharo it took a bit time until I found old Zaur, the only one who still had some Kakheti amber-coloured wine for sale. Hailstorm had destroyed most of the crop last year and most of the locals were running out of stock (or at least that’s what they said).

If you want to see those caves:

First, rent a car. For most of the road any SUV will work, but especially on the Udabno side there are some places were you need both good 4WD and good driving skills. Polish hippie hostel in Udabno arranges also horse tours on almost the same route I used, from Udabno to Signaghi. It is most probably really cool.

Take water. Lots of it. This place is hot already in March, later on it turns into a true hell’s kitchen and water is scarce. The only places to get it are farms and Iori river.

Take icepick or some other means of self-defence and do not go alone. Dogs in the farms are a problem. If you move on foot you must box the farm at a distance of 200-250 metres minimum. Unlike in rest of Georgia there are not many dogs with the sheep flock, most of them stay around the house.

From the April there will be many Levantine vipers. Those have sometimes nasty aggressive character and are highly poisonous.

Locals speak minimally Russian and some bad Georgian. Almost completely Azeri population. Instead of gamarjoba say salaam. If you are a hiker, you will always get some bread, water and cheese. They do not take money. Just take care and do not misuse it.

 

Finally – we went back with friends. And a car. Picture gallery of that trip you can find here: https://www.facebook.com/wahur/media_set?set=a.10155226839289399.703279398&type=3