Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Mt. Shkara Glacier

“We should head for the glacier right now as the weather is good” says Vako. "In the Caucasus the weather can turn bad quickly and Mt. Shkara is a 5000 meter (17,000 feet) peak." As we bump onto the dirt road leading around the village, farmers are stacking hay in their oxcarts. The car, by now, is so completely caked with dried mud that we can barely see out of the windows. The rear bumper has been jarred loose and vibrates like a machine gun every time we hit a rock. Above the village, we turn onto a narrow gravel path that follows the milky blue river flowing down from the Shkara Glacier. As we climb higher on the trail, the river narrows and runs faster over the rocks. After a few miles, the gravel path ends. We park the car and shoulder our packs.

Just as we start to leave, two plain clothed Georgian border guards on horseback descend on us and demand to see our passports. They explain to Vako that the border with Russia is just ahead in the mountains. Vako tells them we are just hiking up to the glacier and that we can tell them our names and passport numbers. The head border guard pulls out a small, worn notebook and pencil stub from his pocket. I make up a name and a passport number. Vako translates each letter and number for them. With great care, the guard enters each in his notebook. Satisfied, he gives us a friendly salute and sends us on our way.

After several hours of hiking, we reach the front wall of the glacial moraine. The rocks are sharp and covered with snow. We use our hands and feet to scramble from one rock to another. Every few minutes, we hear a large crack and a big rock comes loose above us and bounces down the glacier. Bam, bam, the rocks crash down on all sides of us. The strong sun is melting the snow above and making the glacier unstable. The conditions for an avalanche are perfect. Little do we know that just one hour later, a large avalanche will roar down the glacier and carry away everything in its path.

The sun is just setting as we arrive back at Eleanor’s in time for a big meal of cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers accompanied by copious amounts of Georgian red and white wine and vodka.

Ushguli Village at the foot of Mt. Shkara

In the morning we awake to a picture perfect, clear and sunny day. The Caucasus mountains are covered with fresh snow and shine in the morning light. Farmers are leading their cows to high pastures as we drive out of Mestia. One cowbell has a different sound than the others. As the cow passes, I notice it is an old automobile piston instead of a bell. Tea has fed us a big breakfast of cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers and has packed us each a picnic lunch. She says we can pay her when we return, as everyone goes back the same way through Mestia. I know that we will not be coming back and pay her for the room and the meals and thank her for her hospitality.

As Vako’s 4x4 climbs the ridge above Mestia, we get beautiful views of the medieval stone towers and the twin peaks of Mt. Ushba. We pass several small villages and meadows full of cows and sheep. The road is heavily potholed and it is noon before we arrive at Ushguli. We pass the two lower villages and cross the narrow stone bridge to the uppermost Ushguli village and pull in to Eleanor’s Ushguli Guesthouse. The farm houses are so close together that only a muddy foot trail goes through the center of the village. The green valley rises behind the tiny village and points the way to the huge massive of the 17,000 foot high Mt. Shkara.

From Tbilisi to the Caucasus village of Mestia

The sky is just getting light as we pack Vako's 4x4 for the long drive to Mestia. From the Betsy Hotel I can look down on the city and the cathedral and all the way out to the distant hills. The tops of the clouds are still dark. The bottoms of the clouds are lit up by the still hidden sun and the city glows with a faint purple light.

By 8 o’clock we are gassed up and on the road heading west. We pass the South Ossetia border and the endless rows of refugee houses built after the war with Russia just one year ago. We pass the industrial town of Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. In typical Georgian style, cars and trucks weave back and forth randomly across both sides of the highway. Soon, we catch up with the Georgian Army trucks on their way to the Abkhazi border. There is no way to get ahead of the long convoys, but that does not stop Vako from trying. At every chance, he pulls out of line into the opposing traffic and tries to pass the army truck in front of us. As soon as he sees the headlights of a oncoming truck, he quickly pulls back into line. I tighten my seat belt and try not to look. I turn up the volume on my Nano. The sky becomes black and it begins to rain. Although it is midday, the temperature drops and I wonder if it is snowing in the Caucasus mountains. Soon we reach Zugdidi and turn north. The road climbs above the Enguri River and its huge Soviet built dam. The paved road turns to dirt. Vako complains that Russia still takes most of the electric power from the dam even though it is located in Georgia.

By the time the dirt road climbs into the foothills it is raining hard and the potholes are full of water. Before crossing a bridge that is missing some deck planks, we get out to find the safest way across.. We are now progressing at about the same speed we could walk at. When I see a shepherd herding his sheep and rams I get out and take photos while walking along side the car. It seems like we have been driving for days when we finally come around a curve and see the first stone towers of Mestia.

The medieval towers without windows silently guard the snow covered mountains behind them. We find the Ushba Guesthouse and Tea, the owner, welcomes us. As she shows us to our small upstairs room, darkness creeps up and over the tops of the surrounding mountains.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Kozatsky Hotel, Kiev

I look at my watch. It is 7:30 PM and time to go.

I slide my passport and all of my US dollars and credit cards into the inner sleeve in my suitcase. I count out 3000 hryvnia, about $240, and put it in my pocket. Most of the bills are brand new. The detailed portraits engraved on the front of each bill look like works from Durer himself. Their piercing eyes stare at me. Why does such a poor country have such beautiful money?

The “floor babushka” sitting behind her tall desk at the elevator takes my key without a change in her bored expression. I wonder how many hours a day she must sit behind that wooden counter just handing out and receiving keys. As I exit the elevator, the “elevator guard” sitting at his wooden desk with his omnipresent black phone looks at me without moving his head. He will remember what I am wearing and the exact time I am leaving. The two woman at the Kozatsky reception desk stand erect in their grey uniforms with their smart grey and red caps. A beautiful young girl with long blond hair sits in the lounge area negotiating with a tourist. The “inner door guard” in his grey fatigues with no markings sits by the inner door. The two brawny “front door guards” slouch in the small entry way between the steel outer and inner doors to the hotel.

The evening is just beginning as I cross the huge Maidan Square and walk down Khreschchatyk Boulevard to the cafes. I can’t help wondering how it would have been to be here on this very square during the Orange Revolution. What a turning point in history and it all happened right here.

People are now strolling down the wide boulevard and sitting in the outdoor cafes having a class of wine or vodka. Women are dressed beautifully, wearing large gold earrings and high heel shoes. They look like fashion models straight from the pages of Vogue magazine. Men sport crew cuts and wear worn leather jackets over dark tee shirts. They look like gangsters. Everyone is smoking. My throat feels like sandpaper. The kiosks selling ice cream cones have waiting lines. It is a warm summer evening on the famous Khreschchatyk and everyone is here.

I arrive at the café and choose the last available table next to the sidewalk with a good view of the passer-bys. At the next table two dark complexioned foreigners are awkwardly trying to converse with two young girls. I can’t help staring and one of the girls looks my way and smiles. I order a drink and watch with fascination the ever changing show in front of my eyes. As each new group of people passes by I try to image their story. The only stories that are obvious are the beautifully dressed single woman who glance and smile at each passing single man on the boulevard.

As I am finishing my second drink, a woman with bright red hair slows down and smiles at me. I smile back. She nods slightly to me and in a single effortless movement, slides into the seat next to me. Her English is almost perfect as she introduces herself and asks my name. And then the normal tourist type questions. "Are you here on business or vacation? How long you stay here? What hotel you stay at?" When I answer that I am staying at the Kozatsky, the first frown appears on her face. She knows it is the “KGB hotel” owned and run by the defense ministry into which she cannot enter. “Not good place. I not go there” she says. “You come my apartment. Very nice. I have soft music. Very relax for you. I give massage. We have good time. Very close. Not far. We go now?” I realize now that she is not the person I am supposed to meet.

“I can’t go”, I say. “Why not go?” she says and a black cloud comes across her face. “My wife is waiting for me in the hotel”. I realize what an obvious lie this is, but what else can I say? Her smile is gone now as she leans close to me and whispers in my ear. “Not nice to play games with Russian women. We have boyfriends - very big –very strong. They do bad things to people not nice to Russian women. You not make them mad.” She draws back from me and looks at the park bench on the sidewalk right across from us. I see two stocky men with crew cuts and leather jackets looking at us. They stare at us without moving. Their faces are not friendly.

She looks angrily at me, stands up, and walks off past the two men on the bench. They continue to stare at me. I realize now that it was a big mistake to have told her what hotel I am staying in. If I can just get back to the hotel, everything will be fine. They cannot enter the Kozatsky.

I sip my drink until the two men leave. The waiter is talking to his friends inside the restaurant so I hurry inside to the cashier and pay the bill. I take a last look around and begin walking back to the hotel. I walk fast and scan the people walking in the same direction on both sides of the boulevard. The boulevard is crowded now and the stocky men in their dark clothes and leather jackets all look the same. Are any of them also walking fast in the same direction? As I cross Maidan Square, the stark grey walls of the Kozatsky welcome me. I cannot see the guards inside the front doors, but I know they are always there. Tomorrow evening I will go to the café again.