The weak setting sun cast long shadows as we stumbled out of the marshrukta and stretched out after a long cramped ride. The sheer beauty of Mestia lifted our sagging spirits. Snow capped mountains in the not so distant horizon, a sky painted with sunset hues and a cool nip in the air lent a dreamy quality to the evening.
Our flight – on a 16-seater propeller plane – from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to mountainous Mestia almost 500 kilometers away had been cancelled earlier that day due to bad weather. Most of us passengers were squeezed into the only available bus, locally called marshrukta, for the cross-country journey.
It was in a little park that doubled up as the town centre in Mestia that we met him. My travel companions and I were looking for a driver to take us to our B&B. He patiently listened to directions from our host over the phone. “The ride is short”, he said handing back the phone. “I won’t charge you”. We thanked him profusely, pleasantly surprised by the gesture. All this communicated via an intermediary as we did not understand each other’s language. Tall and of generous built, he had to bend himself to get into the SUV. A short and silent but bumpy drive later, we were at Rosa’s.
Rosa runs an excellent B&B. She is a gracious host and the meals are wholesome. She set us up in the brand new wing of her homestay where we spent the rest of the evening soaking in the silence and gazing at snow capped mountains. Mestia is nearly 5,000 feet high in the Caucasus mountain range in northern Georgia. It serves as a base for mountaineers – from rookies to alpinists, trekkers to off-roaders. This has given rise to a booming real estate industry, from hotels near gushing gorges to backyard tents advertising wifi services. “It’s not the same as before”, hankered some old timers.
Next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of local cheese, eggs and mince rolls, we headed to the city centre. He was standing by his vehicle, shooting the breeze with other taxi drivers, waiting for that one big job that would allow them to take the rest of the day off. This time we asked his name. Mamuk it was. My partner and I decided to trek while our friends asked Mamuk to drive them to the base of a nearby mountain. Improvised sign language again.
A couple of hours later the long trek was abandoned due to an overestimation of fitness levels. We dragged ourselves back to the park. Mamuk raised his eyebrows and used his fingers to indicate walking (as we had done earlier). My partner panted hard for effect. Mamuk nodded sagely. He drove us to our friends.
As we were all returning down a curvaceous road a few hours later, my friend was narrating how Mamuk loaned her money at the cable car ticket counter when she struggled to find the right currency in her cavernous backpack. Just then, we were brought to the present as Mamuk said, ‘chacha’ in a questioning tone. Chacha is the highly potent Georgian brew made of grapes. Assuming he’ll take us to a local bar, we nodded vigorously. But Mamuk had something more immediate in mind. He slowed down and veered the vehicle off road as we watched in curious silence.
With the ease of an often-executed ritual, Mamuk pried a plastic bottle from below his seat. It shimmered with the golden liquid. He bend down again and unearthed another plastic bottle, this one empty. Using a penknife to prise off its neck, he fashioned a cup of sorts. We watched in silent fascination he as poured out a generous peg for each of us. It was strong for sure. We shared some happy banter, each speaking his/her own language. A conscientious driver, Mamuk refrained from drinking. Later in the evening, Mamuk, Rosa’s husband and my partner had an impromptu chacha session at the gate of the B&B where Mamuk more than made up for the earlier restraint. In true Georgian style many toasts were raised and histories of respective families exchanged.
And thus the ice was broken. Mamuk become our designated driver for the next few days, sportingly accommodating our myriad requests. He did turn grumpy when we asked him to drive us to Ushguli one evening. At 7000 feet, it is Europe’s highest inhabited village, a cluster of hamlets. 50 kilometers from Mestia, it can be reached via a winding road with mountains on one side and the Enguri river – fast flowing through a gorge – on the other. Although Mamuk generously packed a couple of large loafs of flat bread and beverages for us all, he kept shaking his head as day turned to pitch darkness. It felt as though we were driving into nothingness. A few lights twinkled in the distance as we reached Ushguli. It was a misty and rainy night. We discovered that our homestay was at the far end of the last hamlet. Mamuk politely refused our host’s offer for a meal. With a wave of a hand, he turned around and drove back into the mist. Our guilt overrode our hunger.
If Mestia has established itself as a base for travellers, Ushguli is slowly but surely waking up to the benefits of a tourist economy. The road we had traveled on was built only a few years ago. It had made travel deep into the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range more accessible. Most homes doubled up as B&Bs. The more prosperous locals built additional rooms to cater to the influx of summer tourists. This does not take away from Ushguli’s beauty, yet. Medieval Svan towers dot the village and low floating clouds cast shadows on surrounding mountains. The base of the Shkhara glacier is nearby. Let me rephrase that. It’s a three hours trek and we hired a ride halfway. The route offered a delicious skyline and gorgeous vistas – snow capped mountains, shoulder length flora of myriad colors coupled with gushing streams. As we neared the glacier, loose rocks made for tricky maneuvering. We were rewarded for our hard work with comfort food lovingly prepared by our host, Lidya. Thick soup, homemade bread, fresh salad and a meat preparation accompanied by local wine kept us warm – it might have been summer but for us tropical birds, 12 degrees was cold. On learning of our Indian roots, Lidya fashioned a perfect namaste. She was not immune to the charms of Hindi soap operas broadcast on local channels, dubbed in Svan, of course.
After a few days of wandering aimlessly, soaking in the sun whenever it showed itself and meeting adventurers – each with an interesting tale to tell – it was time to head back. Our host’s daughter was on a summer break from the University of Tbilisi so we requested her help to call up Mamuk. We were quick to specify that he pick us up in broad daylight. This time he took up on our hosts’ offer for a beverage. He was back to his usual self, indulgently halting along the way to allow us to gather souvenirs – pieces of smooth slate dislodged from the mountain.
Our last ride with Mamuk was to the city of Zugdidi, 130 kilometers from Mestia. We drove down the winding road along the Enguri river as it rushed breathlessly towards the Black Sea, only to be slowed down by the Enguri dam. It was befitting that our last journey with Mamuk involved chacha. We had stopped at a viewing point of sorts to have a closer look at the river. Out on a picnic were a few locals feasting on watermelon. There were a couple of plastic bottles by their side, shimmering with the golden liquid. Improvised sign language and chacha toasts were the order of the day. Once again Mamuk did not drink but he graciously accepted a plastic bottle with some of the brew. A nightcap perhaps?
We parted ways with the river and continued inland to Zugdidi to catch the overnight train to Tbilisi. Day had turned to night as we reached the railway station. While my partner and Mamuk headed off to buy food for the journey, my friend typed out a thank you message on the Google translate app. As he read the Georgian translation, Mamuk smiled and said goodbye with a nod and a wave. We entered the station, melancholic that our time in the mountains had come to an end but happy to have crossed paths with Mamuk. Drinking chacha would never be the same again.