It was a long bumpy day of marshrutka rides from just below the Russian border, across all of Georgia, to the small nation’s southernmost point. From the towering alpine range of the Caucasus I bounced on loose suspensions through fertile valley farm land, expansive dry cattle pasture, and eventually into the rocky, yellow lowlands of the south. I caught sunset over the Kura River and the beauty helped ease my aches and pains from a full day crammed in people movers.
Back in Tbilisi I strolled the comfortable, attractive streets in search of delicious eats to satiate an endless hunger developed over the past week of hiking. I found my return visit to this delightful city could not have been timed better. Raspberries, nectarines, apricots, and watermelons all seemed to hit peak season in perfect sync and the streets were flooded with mindbogglingly fresh and cheap produce. One vendor, slinging his berries by the bucket load, stopped me in my tracks. I needed a double take to believe my eyes, was I dreaming? For less than two dollars I became the proud owner of more than a kilogram of ruby red, firm yet juicy, raspberries. Add in a carton of ice cream and a nightly harvest festival ensued until my payload was depleted. Again I could feel myself being sucked in by Tbilisi’s magic. If I lingered a little to long, there may be no escape. To break the spell I bought a sleeper train ticket to Zugdidi; from there I would meet a marshrutka driver who would usher me back into the Caucasus.
A rag tag militia of Mitsubishi Delicas awaited my arrival to the small in-between town of Alvani. I assume the assembled mass of drivers would generally prey upon two travelers who make their way to the main intersection, but seeing as Abi and I had already paired up with our 4x4-van hybrid nobody bothered to leave the comfort of shade. I was surprised to see the aforementioned vehicle in such quantity here as a friend back home had recently told me it was becoming quite popular to convert these 90’s Japanese rovers into overland travel vehicles. If they are in short supply back in the U.S. it’s because they have all ended up in Georgia. For two hours I waited at the intersection with my driver and hordes of others, all of whom were praying today was the day visitors arrive, no one wanted to miss opening weekend. I was headed into the Caucasus Mountains, to the region of Tusheti, and this high altitude range has a very short tourism window. Mid-June - mid-September pretty much sums it up but a big snow season on either side can shorten that spread. The drivers, all eager to fill a car for the five hour ride, don’t want to miss a chance at what can be a relatively nice payday by local standards. I should have taken it as a warning sign that no other visitors ever came; eventually my car departed.
Every culture lays claim to some gift they developed and gave to the world. But few countries can argue that their contribution is perhaps the most cherished delicacy of all time. In what is now Mexico chocolate was pioneered, and the origin of coffee can be traced back to regions in Ethiopia, but Georgia holds the royal flush in this global secret Santa, because Georgia gave us a truly magical beverage, Georgia gave us wine.