Why do you cry dear
Why do you cry
Because of that dog?
It’s just a dog just a dog
Just a dog
I didn’t linger long at the Black Sea coast. It sure was nice to see the dreamy blue horizon for a bit, but Svaneti was calling. Svaneti. A mythical mountain province in the north of Georgia, inhabited by the Svans and infamous for kidnapping and robbing western travelers in the past. Svaneti. Where dog fights are traditionally arranged for entertainment, where people drive carelessly and every single vehicle seems damaged from an accident. Svaneti. Where rustic villages and ancient watch towers in stone cope with snow capped mountain peaks and rivers in the valleys; Putting together a delicate scenery for the eye.
Let me tell you more about Svaneti. Let me tell you about the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Just as we were to leave Ushguli to take on our next mountain pass a dog came running towards us, with his tail hanging low letting out little whimpers. We tried to ignore the dog at first to make him tire off us and go back to the village; But in the end we concluded there was no point. He was not going back. We were his humans now.
I met up with another Swedish cyclist, Lars (also known as The Lost Cyclist, just check out his website) in the city of Zugdidi and we decided to make the ride across Georgia together. We had barely gotten out of the city however, when we realized we were being followed by the police. There seemed to be two different vehicles taking turns in following us, as it kept on for hours. At first we thought they simply wanted to shield us from the bad traffic. Then we discussed whether it could be because of Abkhazia; A closed republic and war zone not far away from the road we were taking. In either case, we wanted to get rid of them to be able to camp peacefully in the forest. As the police car lingered behind, we took the opportunity to sneak off into the woods. We stood silent hiding behind some pine trees as the vehicle passed, and then we fled off-road… But we knew we were screwed the moment blockades of briers surrounded us and clung onto our feet and ankles.
We made sure to give Benji his share in each food pause and he always ate gratefully. But he was a really behaved dog and would never try to steal food from us unless we gave it to him, and he would never jump and never bark… unless he saw a car. If he saw a car he went complete nuts (which luckily didn’t happen often on the bad roads we were taking) and would chase after them with intense wows. “I’ll protect you humans, I know cars are bad to you, aye? I’ll save you!!”
The two police men stepped out of the car and after a pretty heated discussion (from our side, the police men remained calm although stubborn) and various phone calls between me and a woman who spoke a little English we gave up and followed voluntarily to the police station.
Reason being: It was “too dangerous” to camp in the woods, and hence we were demanded to go somewhere safer. Which meant we ended up pitching our tents in front of a soviet monument, right next to the police station! Our bikes were locked up inside the gates and in the morning we were free to go. Well what can I say, the Georgian police seems a little… over protective.
Benji was a smart dog. He knew even before we did ourselves that it would take us some time to figure out a decent way across the river, and hence he lied down on the ground all relaxed, taking a rest in the meantime. Once we had made it across the river we asked ourselves if we should go back to carry Benji over too, but there was no need to. As soon as Benji saw we were ready to go again he swam across the river with no hesitation what so ever. Though Lars helped him a little to get up from the last part…
We were then headed to Mestia and thus the climb up the mountains of the Svaneti range officially begun. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the high mountain peaks due to grey clouds sporadically letting out showers, but at least we got to enjoy the mystique of the melt water running down the steep mountain sides partly hidden by fog to connect with the roaring river. Below us we passed the village Pari; in the past it was known as the “robbers’ village”, until the Cossacks drove them out.
Mestia turned out to be quite a touristic little town, with various minimarkets, souvenir shops, cafés and guest houses. Other than the watch towers witnessing of Svaneti’s past, Mestia looked more like an alp resort with the classical wooden balconies lined with flower pots. Indeed, it was a popular skiing resort in winter. We spent two days in Mestia hoping to await better weather, only to realize that the weather just wasn’t going to improve… So we had no choice really but to face it in the end.
When we had descended the pass we had to go through several villages. Rather than cheers and smiles we were greeted by nothing but bitterly staring bunches of men… and more terrifyingly several aggressive dogs. Each time it happened Lars and I knew what to do. We had to shield our little dog and be ready with a handful of stones to throw at the attacking beasts.
Twice we failed. Twice I failed my little dog and he was pressed to the muddy ground by a monster. Twice he was bitten by the four times larger dog. Both times it happened there were men present, doing nothing but staring and enjoying the show. Once I heard one of the boys in the bunch laughing from behind. He laughed as my dog was taken to the ground and bitten by his dog. I wanted to press his eye globes deeply into his sockets and further into his brains and then squeeze the juice out. But I just gave him and the men a distasteful glare and turned my back. Benji was little, but he was a fighter and he wouldn’t be taken down so easily. He got away each time with only mere stripes of blood in his fur.
Rather than going to Ushguli according to our initial plan however, we decided to try out a shortcut; To cross the Latpari pass.
“The pass is about 2850 m high. Only 200 m higher than Zagar pass (the pass we were initially planning to take), no biggie!” Sure, no biggie… 200 m difference of altitude can’t matter so much, can it?
The climb up the pass was so steep we had to push our bicycles rather than biking. But it was damn fun, and I tell you Lars specifically was like a child on Christmas eve! Every finished hairpin meant another boost, another greater view of the mountains than the one before. In the evening, the sky was so clear we didn’t want to stop. We just wanted to climb and climb and climb. Not until the last beams of reddish sunlight touched the pointy, cragged mountain massive in the west did we set camp at 2400 m altitude. Our tents were pitched right next to the road but we didn’t worry that anyone would see us for the road was impassable by car; A few hundred meters below it had collapsed completely.
The sky dotted with millions of stars was amazing that night and I tell ya this: I really enjoyed my nightly pee!
Benji was a loyal dog. Whenever Lars or I got behind, he stopped and waited for that person – or even ran back to escort us! No mud and no rain was too great to him, and he was our little mood-lifter as the bad weather laid heavy upon our shoulders. At the beginning Benji was shy and wouldn’t look into our eyes. But as time passed he appreciated the intimacy we gave him more and more, and you could see how he got happier and happier, his tail wagging more often.
The next morning we would only have to climb 400 vertical m more and thus we were eager and excited to get to and across the pass. At 2500 m altitude little fields of snow were lining up next to the road side and at 2600 m altitude we had to literally lift our bicycles to get across on several occasions. At 2700 m we seemed to be confronted with a dead end. Not wanting to give up that easily though, we left our bikes laying on the ground and continued a little further by foot to see to our chances: We found that the road ahead of us disappeared in the large snow masses and the steep drops were simply not worth the risk taking. After having pushed our bikes up a steep climb of a thousand vertical meters, we were hence forced to make the decision to turn around.
As you could tell, our intended shortcut ended up being a detour and we lost a full day in the saddle (we were both a little stressed; Me to get in time to Iran for my visa and Lars to get to Kazakhstan). But it was all worth it really, it definitely is one of my most memorable days of this trip so far!
When going down again, it was so steep we had to make several stops only to rest our cramping hands from pressing the brakes so hard (and in several pins we couldn’t ride at all but had to carefully push our bikes down).
Benji knew directly that when we stopped at that spot of grass next to the river we weren’t just making a short pause, but making a pause over the night and he fell asleep even before our tents were pitched. The next morning, we were all good to go again and we promised Benji that as soon as we got to Lentekhi we would buy him delicious sausage.
By the time we were down at 1700 m we were completely soaked in showers, and those remaining 10 km to Ushguli (including a 500 m climb) felt like an eternity. The wheels would constantly slip into pockets of mud making me nearly fall over and I remember checking my bike computer every 500th m; “Only 7 km left… only 6.5 km left…”
I remember the face of Benji as we took into another guest house in Lentekhi. He looked so sad when we left him outside the gates; But he never even tried to follow inside for he knew he could not. The people owning the guest house disliked animals greatly and the man in the house kicked a cat. We later heard a dog whimper from pain as someone hit him and found that Benji had gotten a new wound on his back leg; limping gravely.
Ushguli is a listed UNESCO world heritage (and also claimed to be the highest located village in Europe with permanent inhabitants) but to us it looked like nothing but a shit hole. Sure thing, the watch towers were fascinating as always – but those you can find anywhere in Svaneti – and the views would probably have been stunning – if it weren’t for the thick grey clouds… But the village itself? Nah. The streets were solemnly made of mud and cow shit and the only place to get food such as bread, noodles and peas was from a tiny magazine up the hill.
We took into a guest house in which we met a French cyclist coming from the opposite direction, which meant we could exchange some valuable information with each other. He also told us about a stray dog who had followed him all the way from Lentekhi (a 72 km ride including a climb over a mountain pass of 2600 m). That same dog would follow us for the next three days, and I’m not sure whose heart broke more after those three days. Benji’s or mine.
I had been looking for Benji in the whole village, when I at last found him right outside the shop connected to the guest house. I bought him a sausage and picked up Lars to go feed him – his tail started wagging immediately. That’s when we discovered that Benji knew “sit”. I could hold a delicious sausage in my hand, tell him to sit, and he would do so until I told him differently.
The sky kindly showed us a bit of blue as we climbed up Zagar pass. The road on the top of the pass was framed by two meter high walls of snow on each side, since a truck had been there to clean up the day before.
When descending we were once again confronted with rain – but we still felt luckier than the three Polish cyclists coming from the other way who yet had to ascend. Thinking that the descent meant a pleasant, effortless ride at 40 km/h would be fooling yourself. We had to cross a large field of snow, force our bicycles across a wade, and didn’t go faster than 10 km/h maximum due to the bad road conditions and the mud that constantly glued onto our wheels. We were in fact riding that downhill on our lightest gears, and it took us nearly 6 hours to make the distance of 35 km that day! We set camp on a flat spot of grass next to the river, and the next day we made it to Lentheki – which meant we were finally done with Svaneti.
We tried putting Benji in one of my panniers. But he was slightly too big and as the bike started moving he hopped out. That’s when we had to face the fact that this was going to be it. It was time to leave Benji, our dog, behind. For there was no chance he was going to keep up with us on paved asphalt down to Kutaisi, and the traffic was going to be too dangerous as well.
We took on one more mountain pass before crossing borders to Armenia; and this time we got to enjoy a clear sky with sun shining upon our faces. It was beautiful really; With intensely green-nuanced mountains nearest to us and the vague contours of higher, more aggressive peaks in the horizon; With thick carpets of colorful flowers decorating the roadside and a comfortable-looking dark green bed of pine trees below us. We also met a bunch of Israelis traveling in cars that handed us loads of sweets!
Our last night in Georgia we spent on a plateau at about 2000 m altitude. The landscape reminded me surprisingly much of the Swedish Lapland and if I were to guess where I was I would never have said Georgia.
I hugged my dog one more time and then we took off. But I couldn’t leave him in my thoughts. I kept asking myself in my mind: How could such an incredible dog like Benji not have a home? He could serve as a rescue dog or police dog for sure, because he was so disciplined and endurable, and nearly never got distracted by his surroundings. I also asked myself: Who had been Benji’s owner in the past? He couldn’t possibly have been born on the street since he was obviously trained by someone. Someone who seemed to care more about animals than most people in these areas. But what happened? Why was Benji homeless now?
How do I sum up Georgia to you? The landscapes are stunning really and the roads make an awesome challenge, and I might just come back for them one day (I yet would like to take on Abano pass, for instance). But that might be the one reason I think. In other senses such as people and the country as a whole, didn’t impress me much. The great hospitality I had encountered in Turkey seemed nearly none-existent here, and rather than being greeted with smiles people (well, a bunch of ten men) would most often just stare bitterly at us. Plus, I had a great distaste for how they treated their pets.
I looked in the mirror to see that little brown dot in the distance doing his best to catch up with us descending the mountain at 40 km/h. Despite our speed Benji managed to keep up with us for a good 20 km that day.
But this time, he didn’t.