This summer, the bestselling travel author is deep in the Georgia Caucasus, with family in tow. This is part of a series.
Before departing for Georgia, I scoured the Internet, libraries and bookstores for any information on the country. The results, while sparse, all pointed to one inescapable fact: Our journey would be easier, and possibly safer, if we travelled with a local companion.
Language was one issue. While most young Georgians today speak some English, the older generations speak just Georgian and Russian. And it is primarily elders that remain in the countryside, tending crops and watching flocks. The youth, it seems, have been drawn away by the new freedoms to be found in the big city (and there is only one: Tbilisi).
Translation provided by a local would help unravel the complex history and culture of the nation, but more important, would help explain to those we met along the way what we – a young family tramping over the mountains with a pack horse in tow – were doing in Georgia.
To say that Georgians are cautious of foreign strangers might overstate the initial reserve of a gregariously welcoming culture, but there remains a wariness here that arises from centuries of invasion and subjugation. To travel with a Georgian is to travel under their protection, and by extension, the protection of the entire country.
(As one soon discovers, two Georgians only need to have a brief chat to discover they are in some way related; the national genealogical knowledge is astounding.)
In the months before our journey, I began to send out feelers, through friends and acquaintances, seeking not a professional guide but someone to join us as a partner in the adventure, perhaps a young university student interested in improving both their English and knowledge of their country's wild places. I would, of course, pay them, but of utmost importance was their desire to spend the summer outdoors. Without this, they would surely whither after just a few storms or relentlessly hot days.
By the miracle of the Internet, I arrived in Tbilisi with the names of four potential companions. One by one I met them. The first, a sturdy young man named Nik, seemed well suited, until he asked if he could bring his dirt bike along, since he preferred riding over walking. The second, another affable young man, had never spend a night in a tent.
The third, Nato, was an attractive young woman, with fancy nails and high heels. I met her at an outdoor café, where she was accompanied by her intimidating father, a senior officer in the famed Georgian Army, with a shaved head and body of a wrestler wearing camouflage fatigues. Nato looked more suited for a nightclub than a mountaintop, but I was impressed by her unflagging eagerness.
The final candidate, Sandro, was a wiry young man with a cigarette on his lip. Within minutes I knew he was our man. Fluent in both English and Russian, Sandro had plans of forming an orienteering club at his university. A keen botanist and historian, he was equally comfortable explaining the history of his country's mythology as discussing the merits of different GPS units. Furthermore, he had spent three nights in a tent.
We have now travelled through the Georgian wilderness for 40 days with Sandro. Along the way he has collected botanical specimens from the high peaks, comforted our children in times of tears, and recited Georgian poems around the campfire. His ability with language has helped us befriend and converse with isolated shepherds and rugged truck drivers.
The emotional intensity that arises from such journeys have rendered him a de facto member of our family. We have huddled together in the tent as storms raged outside, we have slept side by side on train platforms, we have been sick, drunk, exhausted and in tears. We have almost crossed the entire country by foot, cresting ridge after ridge to see new wonders of the Caucasus mountains spread before us.
And whenever we entered a valley with cellphone coverage, a message from Nato – candidate No. 3 – was invariably awaiting. Could she join us? What did she need for equipment?
Adding a new member to our small caravan – even for a short time – would mean complications, but in a country where hiking is unpopular, why deny such an eager young Georgian the opportunity to explore the mountains? So we invited Nato to meet us in the eastern village of Artani, and two days later a dilapidated white Lada rolled up with mother, father, brother and Nato aboard. Dad was much more jovial now, in civilian clothes, carrying plastic soda bottles full of home-brewed wine. (In more that two months, I have yet to drink wine from a bottle in Georgia; everything instead coming from a Coke or lemonade container.)
Nato stayed with us for five long days, hiking over a major range in hot dry conditions. Often flushed and suffering from blisters, she described the journey as "the best days of my life." We still receive messages from Nato whenever we enter cell coverage, offering encouragement and look forward to a reunion in Tbilisi at the journey's end.