A gift from the mountain Gods
My battered walking boots and rucksack attract taxi drivers like mosquitos at dusk.
“Taxiiii?”, the first old man gruffs, puffing on his cigarette.
I nod my head. My journey by foot would begin from Juta, the gateway of the Chaukhi Pass in the Caucasus mountains near Kazbegi, Georgia. Already stocked with instant noodles and biscuits for the two-day hike purchased in the dilapidated corner shop named ‘Market Google’, I had just one thing left to buy. No hiking trip in Georgia is complete without a bottle of the national alcohol, Chacha. Before traveling into the austere wilderness, I should find a local supplier of the 45% spirit. Maybe this taxi driver knows where, I hoped.
“Chachaaa”, he grins, displaying two missing teeth. He nods his head in understanding. Gesturing to follow, he limps to his beaten-up blue Mitsubishi Delicas that has one wing mirror and no bumper. I get in.
Within a few minutes, I am sitting on a faded green sofa in the front room of a creeky house somewhere between Kazbegi and Juta. Perhaps it is the taxi drivers home, but the language barrier prevents me from asking. An old lady dressed modestly in black, a headscarf tied under her chin, is pouring liquid from a 5-liter bottle into a chipped glass.
“Gaumarjos,” I raise the glass and the grogginess of the morning’s jolting 3-hour marshrutka ride on hectic Georgian roads is swiftly obliterated in one generous shot. Nodding approval, glass still in hand, I purchase 500ml of Georgian courage decanted into a plastic water bottle. I’m ready for the mountains.
After a nail-biting ride, centimeters from tumbling off the narrow road, I reach the valley that leads to the 3338m Chauki Pass. Here, the bodies of the hills are painted golden green and red. Veins of waterfalls twist from their hearts, interrupting Autumn’s artwork. Roaming freely, horses are the chief navigators of these parts. I check my phone, no signal.
Finally, after scrambling the final vertical meters, I arrive, heavy-breathed and shakey-kneed, above the clouds.
Eagles circle over the seven jagged teeth of the peaks as I follow the path that climbs towards the summit from Juta to Roshka. I had heard about this Georgia. Fierce, wondrous, expansive, wild Georgia. The lower meadows transform into layers and layers of rippled rusty mountains that unfurl with my upward steps. The white tip of Mount Kazbegi slowly emerges behind.
Finally, after scrambling the final vertical meters, I arrive, heavy-breathed and shakey-kneed, above the clouds. Sitting on the blackened roof of the Caucasus’, I pull out the plastic bottle of euphoric liquid designed for beautiful achievement and mountainous celebration. My mouth winces as the Chacha warms my insides, preparing me for a cold night camping in minus temperatures, alone.
Leaving the peak’s clawing wind, I pitch my tent behind some huge boulders on lower ground. Nature whispers to me gently don’t be scared. I fall asleep listening to the lullaby of the river. Next to me lies that familiar bottle of Chacha. It was gifted to Georgians by the mountain Gods, and to tourists by a taxi driver from Kazbegi.