Wanderings in the Forest

I have always struggled with navigation in forests, and this last week has been no exception. Firstly, I ventured out into the Forest of Dean last week to plan for the up-coming group walk. I immediately discovered that unless you are walking one of the forestry commissions designated walks, the signage is, at best minimal, or at worst none existent. Without landmarks and the absence of sunshine, and an ever-present screen of trees, the odds were stacked against me. Maps are often of little use and even the phone was giving me false information. As a result, I spent the morning wandering around, becoming frustrated with my own inability to navigate, but at the same time enjoying the freedom that wandering provides. In the end, I decided to give up and leave it to chance with the group.

By the time the group walk took place, I had decided to revise the route. There has been so much rain recently, that the section along the banks of the Wye was too slippery and unpleasant; we would remain in the woods throughout. I also gave out printed maps to each of the seven walkers who had joined me, so that they could take some responsibility for the route finding/selection. I don’t think they were referred to at all during the walk.

Heading south from Symonds Yat Rock car park on a gloriously sunny, if chilly, morning, the route was easy. Conversation flowed. These walks are not just about the exercise but the social interaction, without distraction, that walking provides. With the exception of two members of the group, we had all been in Kyrgyzstan earlier in the year and this was the first time we had been together since, so it was very much a reunion.

When we reached the camp site at Braceland we had navigational decisions to make. It was clear that  it really did not matter where we went, so I made it up as we went along. Much of the time we were never quite sure which path we were on; occasional junctions or turns helped us, and we were able to adjust if we felt we were going in the wrong direction. Largely, it was the position of the sun that indicated our direction of travel, and if it indicated we were travelling the wrong way, we corrected at the first opportunity.

Remarkably, we found ourselves on the Wysis Way, which links Offa’s Dyke with the Thames Path, and which I had wanted to be on. Having found it, we stayed on it. At one point, Simon was lagging behind, and when he caught up with us, he showed us why. He had been taking photos of a stag in amongst the trees, not too far off the path. The rest of us had been either too deep in conversation, or careful with our foot placements, that we missed it.  Eventually, we reached the Suck Stone where we stopped for lunch. The Suck Stone is a rocky outcrop that provides a good view out over the forest and beyond. It is the first, and only, point from which we had had any view at all.

It was time to make tracks, and to find our way down to the River Wye. There was plenty of distraction along the route while people harvested sweet chestnuts, which were in abundance. So focused on that, and convinced that we were on the right path, we were led into a small quarry with no way out, other than to retrace our steps. I knew where we had gone wrong. There had been a hint of a path leading off at the edge of an enclosure, which I had ignored. Foolish me!

It was while on this wrong path that we bumped into a young couple. The girl recognised me but I had to be helped in recognising her. It was Olivia Hyde who had been on the Himalayan Club 2011 trip to Ladakh. She and her boyfriend had recently moved up to Cheltenham from London and were taking advantage of the countryside now available to them. It was great to catch up.

Taking the correct path, we descended steeply down to the river, which was full and brown; not the tranquil, clear river that we have grown to love on numerous canoe trips. Now there would be very little need to paddle, and you certainly would not need four days to canoe its length.

The sting in the tail is that there is a steepening climb back up to the carpark, but there is the reward of a cup of tea in the cafe at the finish. The reward is also the view from the lookout point at the top of Yat Rock.

We had managed to cover 10.75 miles in our wanderings. While I enjoy having a plotted course to follow, this walk allowed us a degree of freedom that is equally enjoyable. We were never really lost and every path leads somewhere.

Everest ’98 Reunion Weekend

Back in March, at the Himalayan Club 25th Anniversary Dinner, a group of girls from the 1998 Everest trip paid £300 during the charity auction,  for me to take them walking, twenty one years on from our previous walk together.

Have they changed? Not at all! In 1998 they talked their way, non-stop around Nepal and this weekend they talked non-stop around the Black Mountains. There was just a brief lull in the conversation as they tackled a short steep section. What has changed is the topic of conversation; a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the intervening twenty-one years, or should I say waters broken, as the five girls have ten children between them and an eleventh on the way. What I don’t know about babies, child care (or the lack of it), pelvic floors and much more is not worth knowing. The conversation may have shifted but their sense of fun has not left them at all.

The weekend started on Friday evening, as, one by one, they arrived at the Old Chapel, each one impressing us with their navigational skills and following instructions. Over dinner, and a few bottles of wine, we broke the ice and learned where we all were in life. I brought out the list of all those who were on the trip, and despite the fact that the group of ’98 are dotted all over the world, they were able to let me know about who was where and what they were doing. It was not without the odd surprise!

Nursing slightly sore heads and sweating alcohol for the first hour, we headed up the hill behind the Old Chapel. David Thomas and Digger came with us, to add moral support and to look after Jo, who is pregnant, should she need an escape route. By the time we reached the summit ridge we were in cloud, and that is how we remained for much of the walk, until it began to clear in the afternoon. Despite the fact that they do not walk on mountains regularly, they managed a good pace throughout, despite the wind resistance caused by their constant conversation.

We reached Gadair Fawr in time for lunch on the summit, before heading across the featureless, boggy plateau up to Waun Fach. The girls were encouraged by this because they thought I’d said “wine bar”, having now forgotten about their thick heads of the morning.

On the top of Waun Fach we came across a DofE group from Reading. Apparently they seemed to think it was necessary to explain that Reading was near London! The girls pointed out that they were walking with their old teacher! Less of the old, please. When they realised that I was offended they decided to tell people that David and I were a gay couple and they were our children! I nearly fell through my pelvic floor!

Descending to the col at the top of McNamara’s Track, David continued the descent with Jo while the rest of us climbed back up to the ridge, over Mynydd Llysiau as far as Pen Twyn Glas. Along the route we met another DofE group from Stroud. This time the girls introduced themselves as part of a much larger group, who, were unfortunately, in prison. In fact the girls were only on day release and I had to get them back later in the day. The DofE group sat open mouthed, not sure whether to smile politely or run.

After 13 miles we returned to the Old Chapel for tea and rather too much cake. Lucy had some particularly good blisters on her heel, the result of having to borrow boots as she had left hers in France. The fact that she did not complain at all during the walk shows just how stoical she is.

Having gorged on cake, showered and changed, we headed next door to David and Annie’s so that the girls could enjoy a glass or two of Prosecco while easing their aching limbs in a hot tub. To add to the girlie treat, they each applied face packs with cucumber eye pads. Thoroughly spoilt!

 

 

 

 

 

After a good night’s sleep, the result of not drinking quite as much alcohol, we set off to Ystradfellte to experience a spectacular series of waterfalls. After recent heavy rainfall, I was hoping that they would give the girls the “Wow” factor. Unfortunately, most of South Wales was hoping for the same, so the area was fairly busy.

Walking along forest tracks, we headed to Sgwd Yr Eira on the River Hepste. This is the fall that you can walk behind on a safe, undercut rock ledge. You have to be prepared to get wet, which we did. The power of the water was phenomenal, sucking the air out of us as we breathed in. Spray was everywhere and we were immediately wet through. The volume of water tumbling over the lip was so vast that we were unable to see through it.

Climbing back up we ventured to the Afon Mellte, where were were to encounter a further three waterfalls. The first, Sgwd y Pannwr is at the end of a long limestone pavement. The water tumbles down over two ledges into a wide plunge pool. On other occasions I have seen canoeists drop over this fall, but I suspect there might have been a little too much water.

The next fall, I think, is one of the most spectacular. Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn is a wide, slightly horseshoe shaped fall that does not have a plunge pool but falls into a series of white, foaming cascades. It is possible to walk through the fall to a ledge behind, but care has to be taken as the power of the water can send you down the cascades with horrible consequences.

The final fall, Sgwd Clun Glyn, is the highest of the four falls and is where we had a bite of lunch. All we had to do now was return to the car park and head off to our different homes. As we walked back, the realisation that the weekend was coming to an end, dawned, and the conversations moved away from children to what next. There is a clear desire for more, perhaps a paddle along the River Wye next year followed by ambitious plans to take the adventure much further afield. And why not, life is for living.

We had a super weekend. The sixth formers I took to Nepal in 1998 have grown to be delightful women with great personalities and an appetite for fun. I am really looking forward to sharing more adventures with them. In the meantime, I am looking forward to getting back to our normal walking conversations concerning aches and pains, Stennah stairlifts and funeral plans!

Special thanks to Angela, David and Annie for joining in and looking after us so well.

A Quiet Sunday in the Black Mountains

You may be forgiven for not turning up for this walk. A long spell of heavy rain and high winds battered the area throughout the night, with warnings of flooding on many rural roads. The forecast for the day was also very off-putting. So I was not surprised when there were only three of us gathering in the car park at Llanthony Priory at 10.00am.

As we climbed up out of Llanthony, heading for the beer track, the raw sound of motorbikes surged up the hill after us. There was a scrambling event on a nearby field, and with the rain of recent days, not least the last twelve hours, it was going to be a very slippery affair with lots of throttle. It was an all consuming noise and followed us all the way up the beer track, only disappearing as we dropped over the summit ridge on to Offa’s Dyke.

The cloud base was at about 600m and the varying shades of cloud and patchy light were much easier to appreciate in the flesh rather than via a camera. With the exception of two walkers who came towards us from the south, we had the whole ridge to ourselves, and the rain held off.

I was a little nervous about finding the right line of descent into Cwmyoy. Despite there being a cairn, a marker stone and a path all pointing in the right direction, the path soon fizzles out and you have to start making it up as you go along. When I tried it earlier in the week, I ended up wading through deep, wet bracken. I wanted to avoid repeating that experience. So we picked our way down, seeing where we wanted to get to, via runnels of water and sheep tracks. Annoyingly, looking back you can see the path clearly carving its way up the hill. How it cannot be seen at the top of the ridge is incomprehensible.

 

 

 

 

 

The outcome was that we reached the path we wanted just as a shower of persistent drizzle came upon us, enough to require at least a waterproof jacket.

From then on it was all plain sailing down to the rocky knoll overlooking Cwmyoy. There, on the summit, we found a little hollow offering us some shelter from the increasing wind, which had, by now, blown the drizzle away, and enjoyed lunch.

You can’t really do this walk without visiting the higgledy-piggledy Cwmyoy church, a victim of landslip and subsidence. Two large buttresses hold up the tower, which leans at a precarious angle. Like a double decker bus, how far can it lean before it falls over? Inside the church there are no horizontal surfaces. Pews slope down from the aisle in the middle. The window behind the altar slopes one way while the altar slopes the opposite way. Also, interestingly, there are no tell-tale cracks in the walls to suggest there is anything wrong. They must have done a great job patching up any imperfections.

 

 

 

 

From Cwmyoy, we dropped to the floor of the valley, crossed the river and the road before climbing up to a forest track that contoured all the way back to Llanthony. Long before we reached our final destination the noise of engines cut through the trees. It was so loud that we were sure that they were heading our way along the forest track. This noise had been going on for at least six hours. Meeting an elderly local man walking his dog, I made a remark about the noise, expecting him to have a moan. On the contrary, he said it was only one day in the year.

A welcome pint was waiting for us in the cellar bar of Llanthony Priory. Beyond the noise of the scrambling, it had been a quiet Sunday in the Black Mountains – we had only seen three other people in the 10.4 mile walk.

Istanbul

If, having flown in from Tbilisi, I might think that a weekend in Istanbul is a good way to relax and unwind after a trek, I couldn’t have been more wrong. We were met by our charming guide, Melissa, at the new Istanbul Airport to be escorted to the Budo Hotel in town. The journey took about an hour. During that time, Melissa fed us with information. There was something very northern about her accent, enough for me to question where she was from. With a Manchurian mother and Turkish father she has managed to inherit some  northern twang in the odd word. Considering she has lived in Turkey since she was four, it is probably quite remarkable that it is still detectable. You know what they say, “You can take the girl out of Manchester but you can’t take Manchester out of the girl!”

Driving in from the airport, which is some distance away, you soon realise what a sprawling city Istanbul is. With a population of just over 15 million it is by far the largest city in Europe and is double the population of London. It is vast! As we got further into the urbanised area, the traffic became more congested. It was Friday, after all, and all cities become congested as people prepare for the weekend. But it wasn’t just the roads that were congested, the pavements were full. There had been the call to prayers a little before we reached the city and worshippers were gathered kneeling on their prayer mats, wherever they could, adding to the congestion.

Our minibus got as close as it could to the Budo Hotel, but we had to walk the last 100m or so along a street that seemed to specialise in fabrics. Huge bundles of fabric were piled on the pavements waiting to be delivered elsewhere in the city. The shopkeepers and fabric workers sat on little pavement stools, drinking strong coffee and chatting while waiting for customers.

After a few minutes to settle ourselves in, Melissa walked with us towards the centre of town, the hub by the Bosporus where everything happens. Every so often, she would stop us in order to give us bits of information. One of those places was a Nargili cafe, where, predominantly men, go to smoke hookah pipes. We wandered in to find them all sitting in rows, smoking. Attendants helped keep them alight by refreshing the hot coals. There was a warm, aromatic fug hanging in the air. It was fascinating to watch and we were made to feel welcome by the smokers who were happy to show us their nargili pipes.

By now it was beyond three in the afternoon and we had not had lunch, so we found a pleasant rooftop restaurant where we could have a light meal and a beer or two, while looking down on to the busy street below. Istanbul is full of contrasts. Plying their way up and down the main street are modern trams, used extensively as a means to get around the city. Without them the traffic would simply be at a standstill. But, there, dragging a heavily laden trolly along the tramway, is a porter straining to pull his load of precariously piled boxes. Occasionally we would come across trollies stacked against a lamppost waiting for its next load to be laboriously dragged through the streets.

After our bite of lunch we continued further into town, the streets getting busier the further we walked. The shop displays were amazing, with Baclava delicately balanced in the window to catch the passing shopper’s eye. Colourful lighting shops with lamps made of stained glass, exotic rug shops and others selling colourful pottery. There was always something to feast your eye on.

 

 

 

 

 

We were also on the lookout for a restaurant to eat in in the evening, and having sorted one, I returned to the hotel to wait for the three who were flying out from England to join us, including Angela. We timed it just right, getting back minutes before they were delivered to the hotel.

Soon we were heading back out again to face the pedestrian gauntlet. Our restaurant required us to sit on low cushions, tucking our legs under a low table. Some found it easier than others and some soon found the position increasing uncomfortable. The food was good.

On the way back, Mike decided to buy himself an ice-cream from a colourful Gelato man. The ice-cream is very different from that we eat at home. It is called dondurma and is made from cream, whipped cream, salep, mastic and sugar. It doesn’t matter which stall you buy your ice-cream from they all have a ritual that entertains a crowd while the purchaser is ridiculed. The outcome is that more people subject themselves to the ridicule, increasing the vendors income. Having watched Mike go through the process, I had to have a go. It is great fun, and who cares about the ridicule?

With no chance for a lie-in, Melissa met us at 8.00 ready to start our tour of Istanbul. To save time we took the tram into the heart of the city and visited the Hippodrome, a large 100,000 seat open space that once was the scene of chariot races, circuses and many other entertainments. It was a good idea starting early as we had the place largely to ourselves to begin with. Not a lot remains of the original Hippodrome, but it has retained its shape and you can let imagination do the rest.

At one end there are two columns, the first being the Egyptian Obelisk. This is in almost perfect condition with hieroglyphics up all four sides. The most remarkable thing about this is the fact that it is a single piece of pink granite, 19m tall.  Originally 30m high, it stood in the Temple of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmosis III, built in the 15th Century BC. It was brought from Karnak to Constantinople in AD 390.  Whether they reduced the height then for transport reasons or afterwards, I don’t know. Whatever the length, how did they transport such a heavy, cumbersome piece of stone all that way? Around its base may give some clue as to how. The obelisk sits on a plinth of limestone, into which is carved images of how it was moved. It was an incredible achievement of engineering, and, the stone looks so good and pristine, it could have been carved yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

The second obelisk, just a few metres away is the  Constantine Obelisk, at 32m is much higher but it is made out of stone blocks, nothing like as tough as the pink granite of the Egyptian Obelisk. It is also not as old.

At the northern end of the Hippodrome is the German Fountain, gifted to the Turks in 1898 to commemorate the visit of the German Emperor, Wilhelm II. It is like a domed gazebo and the fountain is not a fountain in the normal sense but a series of taps and marble basins around the outside. Typical of German plumbing technology, the taps still work.

The crowds were definitely building up. Next we visited the Blue Mosque. This was a bit of a disappointment, not because it is not a splendid building, but because it is undergoing extensive renovations. This meant that none of the beautiful tiles of the dome were available to view, being hidden above a false ceiling held up with numerous disguised scaffold pillars . I am fortunate in that I have been before and seen the effect the blue tiles have on the light. None of that was possible. Despite the renovation works, it is still a remarkable building.

 

 

 

 

 

It was a similar story at Hagia Sophia, which is going through similar renovations. One section of it is a complex network of scaffolding reaching right up into the dome. Hagia Sophia started out as a church, built by Emperor Konstantios in AD 360. That was burnt down in a riot in AD 404 and a second church was built by Emperor Theodosius II in AD 415. It experienced a very turbulent time as a church, being destroyed or severely damaged on a number of other occasions.

In 1453 Hagia Sophia was renovated into a mosque, marking the beginning of the Ottoman period and the change from Orthodox Christian to Islamic faith. Minarets were built and other islamic features.

It is now a museum. From the outside it looks like a hotchpot of extension after extension and much of the classic external features are lost. Inside, it is stunning. The sheer scale of the building is incredible. There is much to do to renovate the mosaics, something that will probably take many lifetimes to achieve. The lights that hang in huge chandeliers are fascinating. Each light is housed in an upturned glass globe with a nipple at the bottom end. Although they are electric lights now, each globe used to have a candle in it. The  wax used to gather in the nipple, while soot coated the inside of the globe. They would extract both the wax and the soot, mix it together to produce a type of ink for use in writing.

 

 

 

 

 

The visits so far had taken all morning, so taking a break for some lunch at Mihri Restaurant adjacent to a hamami (bath house). The food was good, the atmosphere excellent as it gave us a little respite from the crowds. A harpist played, adding to the tranquility of the place.

Back in amongst the crowds we next visited the Basilica Cistern, a vast, underground water supply for the old city. 170m long, 70m wide and with 336 supporting pillars, many of which were stolen from other temples,, the Basilica Cistern was built by Emperor Justinian in AD 532. It is an incredible, breathtaking piece of engineering. It was able to store 80,000 cubic metres of water fed by 20km of  aqueducts.

Two of the columns are of particular interest and both involve Medusa. One has her head lying sideways at the base of the column while the other has her upside down at the base. There are numerous theories surrounding their position but the most likely is that the Byzantines had little regard for Roman relics and that it was a sign that the christian rulers wanted to get the message across that pagan figures play no part in christianity.

Next we faced the crowds as we walked down to the waterfront near the Galata Bridge, making sure that we did not get hit by a tram in the very narrow streets. We were making our way to the Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Bazaar. This is a colourful, vibrant, noisy and very crowded indoor market that seems to specialise mostly in spices, dried fruits, confectionary and the occasional jewellery stall. This is a fabulous place to try things, to enjoy banter with the shopkeepers and to buy, whether you want it or not, it is just great fun.

 

 

 

 

 

From there we moved on to the Grand Bazaar, an indoor complex of nearly 4,000 shops.  Melissa gathered us at one of the entrances to give us some background information. It was difficult to concentrate on what she was saying because we had incurred the wrath of a security guard who thought we were blocking the way in. We weren’t, and Melissa was keen to stand her ground against his over zealous and aggressive behaviour. You could tell, by the looks on the faces of nearby Turkish men, that they were amused by the altercation, but also impressed by Melissa’s tenacity in not giving in.

We suggested that we probably could manage the rest of the day on our own and that Melissa could go home for a well-earned rest. It was 5.00pm after all. At first, I think she might have felt put out, but we were all beginning to flag, and she must also after feeding us constantly with interesting information. I assured her it was no reflection on her but as this was the last venue on our itinerary for the day, we could manage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having satisfied her, we ventured past Mr Angry guard into the Grand Bazaar. It is a maze of passages, far too many to explore at this end of the day, so most of us remained on the main passageway, not going into shops, not engaging with the shopkeepers, most of whom seemed to be selling jewellery, and headed out of the opposite gateway, and back to the hotel via a visit to a bar for a well earned drink.

That night we ate in the Byzantion Bistro Restaurant, 150m from our hotel, that ensured we did not have to fight the crowds. It was highly acclaimed by Trip Advisor and did not disappoint. Excellent food and service.

Another 8.00am start saw us walking through some back streets to Kalenderhane Mosque. Only cats, and there are many in Istanbul, prowled around outside the mosque. It seemed deserted and it took a while before somebody came to let us in. Starting out as a church, it was converted to a mosque at the beginning of the Ottoman period. because the church was not configured correctly for Islamic worship, the focus of worship is askew of the original with the prayer lines of the carpet on a diagonal. This is clearly visible in the photograph. This was a much small, quieter mosque. Running passed it outside was one of the old, Roman aqueducts that used to feed water to the Basilica Cistern.

From there we headed to a much larger mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque. The mosque was commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent and designed by the imperial architect Mimar Sinan. An inscription specifies the foundation date as 1550 and the inauguration date as 1557. How they could possibly build such a magnificent building in just seven years is incomprehensible. What is more, the quality of the stone work and the clean lines do not tally with its age. It looks almost new.

The other thing that impressed with this mosque is that we saw it in all its glory, without scaffolding and sections hidden behind workmen’s screens. To all intents and purposes this was a perfect mosque. Again, it was largely crowd free but the peace was interrupted by some young children who thought it was okay to charge around, chasing each other and shouting.

Here is an interesting fact: on the chandeliers, there are a number of white orbs. They are, in fact ostrich eggs. Why? Apparently, spiders don’t like ostrich eggs, so while they are in the mosque, spiders stay well clear.

 

 

 

 

 

Afterwards, we went to a rooftop cafe for coffee. Had we not had Melissa with us we would not have known it was there, but it afforded us fantastic views over the city, the Bosporus and beyond.

Next we headed to Topkapi Palace. This is where the sultans lived and administered over the Ottoman Empire. It is a complex set of palaces with a number of gates and courtyards, all leading to an inner court where the Sultan and his immediate family could relax, feeling the breeze coming off the Bosporus and looking out over their city.

The outer courtyard, the Court of the Janissaries, is where the security guards were stationed. These were made up of very loyal soldiers.

Next came the Gate of Salvation that led into the second court where all the kitchens were and where meals were prepared for all 4,000 residents of the palace. Here, there was the Imperial Council Chamber, known as the Divan-i-Humayun because matters of court were discussed while lying on large divan beds. This is also where the harem was. It was while in this court we visited some of the Topkapi treasures with a display of weaponry and armour, all incredibly ornate.

 

 

 

 

 

The Third gate, The Gate of Felicity, led to the audience chamber, an area where the sultan would meet state visitors, although he would only meet them through a screen as he would not meet anybody below his equal face to face.

The Fourth Court was the inner court where the sultan could relax. Here there were pools of water to keep the air cool, ornately tiled rooms with large doorways to facilitate a flow of air. It was, by far, the most pleasant area of the whole palace, although the room where circumcisions took place was a little worrying.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving the palace, we headed down to the Galata Bridge through the mayhem of tourists for a mackerel sandwich purchased from an ornate boat at the water’s edge. There were two men serving while others cooked in the background. Both of them had a huge wad of notes in their hand. They were working, and collecting money, non stop. It must be an absolute goldmine.

Afterwards we boarded our boat for a trip on the Bosporus, giving us a chance to sit, relax, take in the view and appreciate just where we were. Melissa did not switch off and gave us a running commentary throughout most of the trip. It was 90 minutes well spent.

Back on shore we took the tram back to our hotel. We had exhausted Istanbul and Istanbul had exhausted us. Melissa was brilliant. I have done several trips to Istanbul but I feel I have learnt more, understood more about the history surrounding Istanbul, and enjoyed it more (despite it being both physically and mentally exhausting), than in all the other trips put together. Well done, Melissa.

 

 

 

 

 

That night we returned to the Byzantion Bistro Restaurant, because it was the easiest thing to do, and we knew it was good.

Thanks to Sobek travel for putting the trip together for us and a special thanks to Melissa.

 

 

Svaneti, Georgia

In the morning we were up early to catch the train to Zugdidi. When we saw a double decker pull into the station we were hopeful, but it was not to be. Instead, we had a rather old train with patched up paint work. We were booked to occupy the first nineteen seats which meant we were facing backwards but did have the option to stand and look over the driver’s head at the track in front. It was not the most enjoyable of journeys, despite my earlier excitement, partly because any views to either side were partly obscured by condensation on the windows, between the double glazing. David’s seat was permanently in the reclining position and none of the tray tables were horizontal. As a result, a fair bit of sleeping went on. The only excitement came at the very end of the journey as we approached Zugdidi. There were a number of cattle on the track who responded to the hoot of the horn, but as we came towards a crossing, just before the station, a number of cars took their chance to get across before us. Just when you thought the persistent use of the horn had done its job, a car ambled across in front of the train. I was standing behind the drivers and I could only just see the roof of the car. With brakes applied, both drivers stood up and gesticulated. It was a very close shave.

Alighting from the train we enjoyed some traditional Georgian cheese bread before getting into two minibuses for the four-hour journey to Becho.

It was not long before we left the relatively flat countryside around Zugdidi, on the Black Sea coastal plain, that we started to climb into the Caucasus Mountains.

After about an hour we stopped to visit a massive Enguri Dam, holding back a 25km lake, part of a hydro-electric scheme. The scale of the dam is enormous, being 60m thick at its base, tapering to 10m thick at the top. It is a staggering 240m high. Alex told us that there are grand plans to turn it into a World Heritage Site by creating a whole range of extra-curricular uses for it. They plan to put a glass lift down the face of the dam, a long zip wire across it, to stage concerts at its base, using the natural amphitheatre of its shape to improve sound quality, to project images upon the huge face of the dam, provide boat trips, and much more. I think it will be great to make a feature of such a functional piece of engineering. Good luck to them. With all the timber that had accumulated behind the dam they could include raft building in their long list of activities.

The scenery continued to become more impressive the further we travelled and the deeper we travelled into Svaneti. We began to see the occasional watch tower.

Turning off the main road, we had reached Becho, which is a community of villages rather than just one village. We were staying in the village of Mazeri, the last settlement leading to the head of the valley and Mt. Ushba. In my mind’s eye I was expecting basic, rustic accommodation. I had brought a lightweight sleeping bag with me in case I was unsure about the cleanliness of the bedding. I had brought a trekking towel for the occasional wash and a head torch for night forays to an outside loo, running the gauntlet of large guard dogs. None of these items were necessary, a clean en suite room with everything provided awaiting us. The accommodation was excellent.

The icing on the cake was the outstanding view of Mt. Ushba dominating the head of the valley. Cloud was playing around it’s rocky summit, hiding it in part, but it was none the less impressive.

If the accommodation was good, the food was even better. When we went down to dinner at 7.00pm, the table was groaning with food. There was hardly a spare patch on the table for my bottle of “Spend your summer in Georgia” beer. The highlight of the meal for me, was not the range of hot dishes, which were actually not hot, but the tomatoes, which were huge and utterly delicious!

With nothing much to do after dinner, most of us drifted off to bed and managed to squeeze in about ten hours of sleep!

The following morning Mt. Ushba, clear of cloud, stood proudly overlooking the Becho Valley. After a very bread orientated breakfast, we set off on an introductory walk up the valley to visit a couple of waterfalls. This was an easy walk and gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs and for Alex to assess our walking abilities. It was a well-walked trail through beautiful woodland, never far from the tumbling, turbulent water of the Daira River. It was quite warm and humid, but we took it at a fairly leisurely pace.

There were two waterfalls, which tumble over a rock wall that once proved to be a barrier to the erosive energy of a glacier. The ice, unable to make much of an impact on the band of rock, bypassed it, creating an impressive wall for the Daira River to fall over. The right-hand fall, with a greater volume of water, is the much more impressive.

Returning by the same route, we stopped off at a woodland café for our picnic lunch sitting at rustic tables or reclining in one of the hammocks that hung between trees. There was even a pull-up bar between two trees so that the more macho of the group could prove their physical prowess. I had a go but the ten pull-ups I did were so fast I was just a blur to the onlookers. If only!

Vehicles were there to meet us at the end of the walk and transport us to Mestia, the capital of the Svaneti region. Our accommodation was again excellent with more sumptuous food. The timing of our travels was perfect; as soon as we arrived and settled in, it began to rain. Thunder rumbled overhead, but we were comfortable, dry and enjoying a beer.

After another ten hours in the horizontal position and an excellent breakfast, with porridge, we headed off on our walk. However, before we got very far we visited the History and Ethnography Museum. This is a beautifully presented display of church treasures, manuscripts, jewellery, weaponry, musical instruments and historical photographs. I found the manuscripts by far the most fascinating, for no other reason than many of them date back to the 10th century.

From the museum we steadily climbed above the town and overlooked the smart airport that now services Svaneti with small passenger craft, although we did not see any while we were there. It is obviously the way forward, bringing in more tourists on a short flight rather than the protracted train and road journey, that we did. You do get the feeling that with improved infrastructure and many new accommodation opportunities, the people of Svaneti are preparing for ever more tourists.

The clear skies of the morning were disappearing as more and more clouds began to bubble up, slowly obscuring the highest peaks and the glaciers in between. We still got tantalising views towards the highest peaks, but I found I wanted more, I wanted the full wow factor that I just knew was hiding from us. By the time we had eaten lunch at the top of the pass, looking down into the Mulakhi Valley, another community of several villages, we had to resort to our waterproofs as it began to rain, while thunder rattled around the mountain tops.

We were now seeing many more towers and they were proving to be quite remarkable.

Svaneti has a very turbulent local history. For centuries, different clans would clash over cattle stealing. But it did not end there. Wives and young women were also targeted, so to protect themselves from their enemies they built watch towers where they could store their possessions and their wives and children while the men fought. Most of the towers were built between the 6th and the 13th centuries, but some date back even further. They are in remarkably good condition, despite their age.

The blood feuds that occurred all those centuries ago intensified in the 1990s with the departure of the Russians. Today, there are very few instances of feuding, the result of Svaneti opening up to the rest of the world and accepting the 21st Century, of mediators stepping in whenever two families seem to be heading for a clash. How centuries of tradition can disappear or remain hidden in such a short time, is remarkable. All we knew was that many of the people we were meeting on our travels would have experienced feuds, either personally or from a distance. If only we could have talked to them about it and they could have felt comfortable enough to open up about it to us. It would be great if the museum in Mestia could get some first-hand accounts before they are forgotten.

The following morning, the rain had passed, leaving trails of dragon’s breath across the slopes. Much of the humidity had gone and the conditions for walking were much better. Today, the walk was much more significant, with an ascent of about 1000m, up through forests to the ski slopes near the top of the ridge. It was a beautiful walk through the rain refreshed trees and across meadows, still ablaze with some vibrantly coloured flowers, gentian and yellow crocus. Emerging from the trees we hit the ski runs, pristine with their winter cover of snow, but now stony scars on the hills, where the runs have been manufactured at the expense of all else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the top we took some time out at a little kiosk café where Fraser treated himself to some red wine. It was revolting, and, when he couldn’t persuade anyone else to drink it, he was forced to throw it away. Georgian wine, we were learning, was good, but on this occasion, Fraser found that not always to be the case.

The descent brought the now expected afternoon shower before we finally descended into Adishi, which looked charming from our lofty approach, with its array of towers, old houses and farm buildings. On arrival in the village, we realised that we had stepped back in time. The paths through it were strewn with animal excrement, many of the houses were dilapidated and beyond repair. It looked as bad as any village I had seen in other parts of the world.

The accommodation was more basic with no en suite facilities, but it was comfortable, if a little crowded. At least Ian and I had comfortable beds, while David and Mike seemed to have old hospital type beds that sank uncomfortably in the middle.

Despite everything, Adishi is on the up. Five years ago, only three families lived in the village. Now there are twenty. There must have been close on two hundred tourists sleeping there the night we were there, all bringing much needed income to the community. They are talking about rebuilding the school. I think, in a few years from now, Adishi will have made significant changes and will hardly be recognisable.

However, wandering around the village with David later in the afternoon, I somehow hoped it would not change too much. Watching an oxen towing a large wooden sledge over the stony ground is unique to this region. It would be a sad day if this ancient form of transport was replaced with a quad bike! Despite the cow shit on the paths and the dilapidated nature of the village, it has a charm that would be lost with over-enthusiastic development.

As with all mornings, we woke to a cloudless sky. From Adishi, we were taking our longest walk of the whole trek and climbing another pass into the next valley.

After the best breakfast so far, we headed up the valley from Adishi, climbing gently as we went. In the clear air, the views began to open out before and behind. Looking back at Adishi, we were amazed to see Mt Ushba again, with its spectacular rocky pinnacles piercing the sky. It is such a beautiful mountain. Ahead of us Tetnuldi and Shkhara were beginning to show themselves above lower ridges. Also coming into view was the spectacular Adishi Glacier.

Near the head of the valley we had a river to cross. In most circumstances, in most countries, we would have been expected to remove our boots and socks, put sandals on and cross on foot. Not here. Here we were provided with horses to carry us the 20m or so across the calf deep water. The horses knew exactly what they had to do, take on rider, walk across river, deposit rider, walk back a little downstream, take on rider etc. etc.

The bank on the other side was densely vegetated with fairly dwarfish trees. The main body of thr group set off before everybody was resdy and for those left behind there was a little confusion as to where the route went through the densely packed trees. We eventually worked it out and soon caught up with the rest of the group at a super vantage point for looking across at the glacier. Every so often, there would be a crack and the sound of falling ice, but by the time we had reacted, it was too late, the sound reaching us long after the event, despite the glacier being relatively close to our vantage point.

We continued to climb, gradually emerging from the trees, which revealed more and more impressive views of the glacier. Traditionally, the cloud was beginning to envelope the summits, which slightly diminished the awe and wonder of the view, but only slightly.

Now that we were above the trees the whole hillside was covered with dwarf rhododendrons as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, another species of shrub protruded from the canopy, but it was predominantly nothing but rhododendrons. I can only imagine the blaze of colour in the spring when they are in full bloom. A good reason to come back in June at some point in the future.

Reaching the top, we sat on the crest of the ridge and enjoyed our picnic lunch in very enjoyable surroundings. Then came the long descent, steepish to begin with, but then easing, all the way to Iphrari and our guesthouse, that, despite being described as basic (because of the shared bathroom), was lavishly furnished with some wonderful antiques, and a few oddities. At the top of the staircase, a large black panther and a large leopard guarded the landing. They were fine in the cold light of day, but made one start in the middle of the night as you stumbled your way to the loo.

After two relatively difficult days with significant ascents, the walk up to Ushguli was easy. We started with a descent to Davberi and then climbed briefly up to some meadows, which in spring would have been a mass of colour. Then we traversed along the hillside, eventually dropping down to the road shortly before arriving in Ushguli.

Like all the other areas we had visited, Ushguli is a collection of four villages. At around 2200m this is the highest permanent settlement in Europe. One of the villages, Chazhashi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and some restoration of the buildings around the collection of towers has been carried out. Unfortunately, the four towers on the top of the small hill overlooking the site, were, with the exception of one, largely destroyed by the Russians who wanted the stone to build their cooperative farm nearby.

We were staying in the adjacent village of Chyibiani, which has seen a lot of development over recent years. Whilst it is important to be recognised as a World Heritage Site, it can also be the kiss of death for a community. We were fortunate in that we had taken five days to walk to Ushguli, but we are not the norm. Most people drive in on newly built roads. All need feeding. Most need accommodation. They all want souvenirs. Hence, new lodges have been built, new restaurants with lots of large red umbrellas on their terraces, all catering for the hundreds of people that arrive each day, because it is a World Heritage Site. There has to be a cultural and environmental cost. Give it a few more years, and it will be totally spoilt.

In the late afternoon we visited one of the towers, now converted into a cinema, to watch a film, Dede, the story of Svan life in the 1990s with vendettas, kidnap and murder. It was all filmed in Ushguli two years ago using local people as actors. One of the characters from the film showed us to our seats. Although much of the acting was wooden, it told the story graphically and posed more questions about the feuding families than it answered.

With just one more day of walking, following the Enguri River up to its source in the Shkhara Glacier flowing down from Georgia’s highest peak, Shkhara 5068m.

A number of the group had suffered during the week with a bug, which chose to affect me on this last day. I decided not to walk but to starve myself for long enough for the bug to clear through my system. It was probably one of the easier day’s walking, but I knew that I did not have the energy to enjoy it.

When everybody returned, we piled into our vehicles and drove to Mestia for our last night in Svaneti.

Our last day was a travel day, by coach, from Mestia to Zugdidi in the morning. In Zugdidi, we visited a super restaurant for lunch, but it was lunch with a twist. Alex had arranged for us to have a wine tasting during the meal. He chose three bottles, a white, a Qvevri and a red. It was all delicious, but what made it very special was that Alex knew everything there was to know about the processes and production.

Feeling satisfied we climbed aboard the coach for the last leg of the journey, another five or so hours, to Tbilisi. We eventually arrived soon after 8.00pm, twelve hours after leaving Mestia. It left us with little time to enjoy Tbilisi as we were flying early the next morning.

This has been a fabulous trip with a brilliant group of people. Tbilisi is a beautiful city that I feel I must return to to give it justice. Svaneti is beautiful. The high peaks are dramatic and stunning. Culturally, it is fascinating. I’m not sure I would return to Svaneti, however, as I think it will spoil as more and more tourists invade it. I would like to explore the area around the peak Kazbegi, but in June when the meadows are in full bloom. Visit Georgia, our in country travel company ensured that our itinerary ran smoothly. They did us proud. However, one factor that made this trip so special was Alex. His knowledge, intellect and understanding was second to none. Thanks to Alex, we all had the best possible time.

Watch this space for June 2021, when I would like to return for another trip. Interested?