Choppers, Honeymooners, & Glaciers
Trip Start Aug 17, 2013
10Trip End Dec 10, 2013
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Where I stayed
Tbilisi to Mestia by helicopter, 1.5 hours, 50 Lari ($30) per person
Mari's Guest House (43 Lari pp, including 1 meal )
A First for Us
As usual, Nino took care of us and had a taxi waiting at 8:45 am to take us to the airport. We were excited. It will be the first helicopter ride for both of us.
At the Tbilisi airport, it was not apparent where we were supposed to check in. Dave asked a group of young tourists cuddled up on their sleeping-bags in faux grassy area under the escalator. They also were waiting for the helicopter to Mestia. They had phoned the travel agent and got word that departure was delayed for two hours and we should wait for an announcement.
We had some breakfast at the mediocre and overpriced airport restaurant and played cards while we waited.
Finally, the announcement was made that we could check in at counter 24. We were allowed a generous baggage allowance of 20 kilo each and 7 kilo hand baggage.
We had left some things with Nino and we were well under our weight limit. A bus took us over the tarmac far away from the terminal and stopped in front of an MI-171 Russian Military helicopter. Inside, no frill steel benches lined both sides. The luggage cart arrived with our bags and they just tossed them inside at our feet.
A guy appeared out of the cockpit and told us that the flight was 1.5 hours. What no coffee or tea? The partly cloudy skies became increasingly sunny. We lucked out.
The blades began spinning
The helicopter was a lot noisier than a plane. Take-off was less smooth too. And after a few shaky hundred meters of horizontal hovering, we took to the sky. We were low enough that we could clearly see details on the ground below us. We followed a river, flew over lake in barren terrain for 30 minutes before forests and beautiful villages stretched out below us. On the horizon to our right, the snow capped Caucasus got closer and closer
The last 30 minutes were breathtaking as we flew at eye level between the snow covered peaks on both sides. We played musical chairs and moved from side to side to take in the complete view. We then followed another river through a green valley. Several villages sported a series of defensive towers and the trees showed signs of autumn (no more than 20% color). That, along with the backdrop of the snow covered peaks, made a beautiful setting.
Through the travel agent in Tbilisi, we had booked our guesthouse. The young woman working there had told us that her aunt owned the guesthouse and that we would love it. She’d make sure we'd get the best room in the house.
We were met at the airport by Mari’s husband, the guesthouse co- owner, who came across as stern but could be just shy. He didn't speak a word of English. He flagged down a jeep along the dirt road leading into Mestia. It was riddled with puddles from recent rain. After 500 meters, we pulled into muddy courtyard next to 3-story buildings on one side and barns on the other. I questioned if we had made a good choice, pre-paying for a place sight unseen. The staircase leading to the 2nd floor had unfinished walls and floors and no lights. We could not tell if the place was falling down or under construction.
Once inside the apartment, we were led up to the 3rd floor which had three spotless bedrooms rooms and a spacious, sparsely furnished, sitting area with fireplace.
None of the rooms had windows to take in the amazing view across the river to the small neighboring village of Mestia with its ancient defense towers nestled between the plots of land.
Checking Out Mestia Village
We decided to explore the area a bit. It was a kilometer to the center of town. After crossing the bridge, the main road through town is paved. Several guys passed us riding bareback on small horses. Between the houses, on the steep hillside, stand the tall square defense towers, so unique to Georgia. The backdrop of the high snow capped peaks makes the area breathtakingly beautiful.
We checked out other guesthouse options for tomorrow. We wanted to move from the outskirts to the center of the village. There are many guesthouses and hotels in town. One looked promising from the outside. No name but a large sign with "guesthouse" written on it hung on a nice wooden gate. The house, like many homes in the mountains, had a nice wooden veranda along the entire 2nd floor. After we called out a few times, an old lady shuffled toward us. She took us upstairs and pointed out the bathroom in the hall. The rooms smelled musty and bed-linens were filthy. We thanked her and moved on
Many small markets line the street, all selling the same things; a meager selection of vegetables, apples, grapes and maybe a few bananas and decent selection of staples, coffee, tea detergent, dairy, etc.
Next, we checked out Ushba Guesthouse. The owner, Tea, showed us around. Ushba’s has a range of rooms from shared-bath dorms to privates. The rooms are airy and clean. We chose one with bathroom and lovely balcony with amazing view over the river valley to a tree covered mountain across from us with a church, monastery, massive hotel and a few homes.
We continued exploring the area for a few hours. Many of the homes along the main road and plaza appear newly built and have ski resort feel. Apparently they are expecting a tourist boom and for good reason. This is a beautiful area. The main plaza sports a small park with benches. The taxis gather here and infrequent buses leave from here. The tourist information has very friendly staff but no maps or brochures to hand out. Laila's Cafe and Bar seemed to be THE place to be. Tables inside and out were filled with tourist socializing and checking their email. Here we ran across Stav and Tamir, the sweet Israeli couple who stayed at our guesthouse in Dartlo. They were surprised to hear about the helicopter option to getting here. They had gone by the overnight train followed by 4 hours in a marshrutka.
The sun was disappearing and it was cold.
Evening at Mari’s Homestay
We got back to our guesthouse just as it started to rain at 5 pm. A chubby boy with red cheeks walked towards us and said "hello my name is George" and pointed upstairs. He was the son of our guesthouse owners and seemed excited about having company.
We showered and played cards in our sitting area. In spite of our layered clothing, we couldn't warm up. Then a jolly woman came upstairs and motioned for us to come downstairs. This was Mari, the owner and aunt of the girl at the travel agency.
She ushered us to sit on the small kitchen table where she was preparing khachapuri and khupdhari for dinner. She put another log in the wood burning stove. George pulled up a stool and started coloring. Mari pulled a hunk of dough and shaped it into small pizza circle, then put ball of grated cheese in center, pulled the dough up around it then flattening the ball into an 8 inch disk. She put the disk on the hot stove and started with next one. When that one was done she put the first one in the oven and next one on stove top. Next she made khupdhari, same but filled with seasoned chopped beef. A table was set in the living-room for us alone. I had hoped the family would eat with us. The khachapuri was definitely the winner, the Khupdhari being too greasy.
September 28 - October 6
Mestia (❄❄)-3 to +5C
Usba's Guesthouse 50 lari pp, ensuite, including breakfast & dinner
Mari was obviously visibly disappointed that we were not staying longer. She phoned her English speaking niece so we could communicate. I was happy that I could let her know that we really enjoyed the stay, the room and food was wonderful, but we wanted to be closer in town.
It was raining when we left at 10 am. Our jackets had lost a lot of their waterproof qualities, time to replace those. We got moved into our room at Ushba's and decided on lunch at Laila's at the village plaza. The place was packed with tourists waiting out the rain and I guess it is the only restaurant that offers free Wifi.
It rained off and on for the rest of the day. We hunkered down at our hotel, played games and read. From the cozy communal sitting room upstairs we enjoy the 180-degree views out the picture windows despite the gloomy weather. The autumn colors are showing flaming spots down the valley and mountainsides. We are able to connect to Svaneti Hotel's (next door, 100 yards away) internet from here as well.
September 29, 2013 (☁)
These people know how to cook. Breakfast was a multi-course meal; pancakes with homemade blueberry jam and sour cream, fried eggs, bread and khachapuri. We took advantage of a few hours without rain and went for a hike. The snowy mountaintops were mostly obscured by low hanging clouds. Still, it was pleasant.
Dinner was a delicious spread of vegetable soup, stuffed red bell-peppers, a scrumptious salad (adjapsantalie) with eggplant tomatoes and cucumber, grilled trout and a Neapolitan (chocolate covered filo dough stuffed with pudding) for dessert.
We played a few hands of cards before cuddling up in bed with a hot water bottle.
September 30, 2012 (❄)
We awoke to a white world. But the snow down in our valley was short lived after the rain started.
We amuse ourselves with reading, writing, photo editing.
October 1, 2013 - Hunkered down at the hotel.
Today the heating radiators throughout the hotel are operational. We're comfortable.
October 2, 2013 – Dry Weather
....We took advantage of dry weather and hiked 8 kilometers to the glacier. We picked up a freshly baked puri from the baker next door. That, with a hunk of cheese we brought from Tbilisi, made a decent picnic. It was around 13C, high clouds and more and blue sky appearing as the morning progressed.
A tour-group from Israel is staying at our hotel. Their program continues, rain or shine. Their guide told us that it is unseasonably cold and wet here. The hay is rotting in the fields and crops are going to waste. Very sad indeed.
I expected a lot of people to be out on the trail but most people opted to hire a drivers to take them around.
October 4, 2013 - Mestia
Honeymooners Lost in the Storm
A kind local man started talking to us as we were waiting for our dinner to be served in the small restaurant. He had quite a story to tell. He is a local guide and driver. He told us he had driven a young Israeli couple to a trail head deep into the mountains the day before. They planned to hike from village to village. Pretty brave. Most people had canceled their trekking plans due to inclement weather. Most days the rain was relentless and heavy snow fell at higher elevations. The guide asked them if they had warm and waterproof clothes with them. "And I told them that the forecast was nothing but rain and snow," he said. "Yes" the kids insisted, "We'll be ok. We are strong". “I told them to take my phone number, just in case,” he explained.
"Today, (the next day), I got a call from their father in Israel." "The young couple (David and Avia) had called the father, they were lost, wet and cold and they couldn't give their location." "They gave their father my number" the local guide went on. "I notified the rescue team and the alert rapidly went from village to village." "They already spent one night exposed to the elements. Now we just wait and hope they are found before it is too late." "Her father is flying to Georgia as we speak," he added.
Turns out, David and Avia got married two weeks ago and are on their honeymoon.
What a story, I couldn't get those kids out of my mind, imagining how they must be suffering in the cold.
October 5, 2013
This morning at breakfast we heard the good news that David and Avia had been found by a couple of sheepherders, Mosa and Omar, who had gone out looking for them. They took them to a cabin and lit a fire for them. The herder told them they never leave home without some dry kindling to start a fire. Later, the local rescue team arrived and took them to the hospital then to our guesthouse.
Late last night they arrived at our guest house and had tearful and very happy reunion with Avia's father who had immediately flown to Georgia with a professional rescuer who had brought mountaineering equipment with him. They discussed the poor English signing on the route that was misleading and led the couple the wrong way.
David came down for a late breakfast followed shortly thereafter by Avia. He explained that once they realized the trail they were following wasn't the right one, they had a choice to back-track back up into the storm or to hunker down overnight on the trail where they were at. They were too tired to retrace their steps. They wanted to make sure the sheepherders got credit for their rescue as the official rescue team was late and nowhere near them. Luckily this story had a happy ending for these honeymooners.
October 7, 2013 - Mestia to Tbilisi by Helicopter - 2 to 4 pm
Again a beautiful flight at eye level of the snow capped peaks. Below us we spotted some intriguing trails through green valleys and forests leading to secluded villages.
We circled four times before being able to land. After we landed, all went smooth. We hopped in marshrutka which left us off at the Isani metro stop, and picked up a few items at the large supermarket before heading the rest of the way “home" on the metro. Our room was waiting for us. Nino was happy to see us and said she had missed us.