Svaneti: Falling Rock Zone


Svaneti Region


(1500m. 4920 ft.)

October 9, 2012

My dear driving enthusiasts,

North of Zugdidi, the mountain road begins.  It’s a good paved road, but on the very first incline, the international sign indicates “Fallen Rock Zone.”  As I climb higher and higher here in the Greater Caucasus, rocks big and small litter the road. 

Fields of pebbles, rocks of all shapes, and from time to time a boulder the size of a piano have tumbled down the steep sides of the mountains.

As I drive, I wonder, “Will I be in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

I steer around the impediments with ease and confidence, shifting the gears up and down as I proceed up the one lane mountain “path.” 

For an instant I lose my concentration, and in that instant, “Wham!”

Next, I hear an industrial-grade grinding noise that sounds like a construction site in the valley below.  Then the steering wheel becomes immobile. You know that sinking feeling you get in your stomach?   Now I must face the awful, immutable truth: A Flat!  Fortunately, it’s not from a falling rock, but from a fallen rock.

A level shoulder is just to my right.  And what a sad sight: the left front tire is as flat as Magellan’s map.

I know how to change a tire, but I decide to wait.  Calm down.  Relax. See what comes by.   And sure enough, in about a minute, on this lonely mountain road with almost no traffic at all, a car appears.  I wave to the driver and point to my tire.

The driver immediately pulls over and we get to work: we remove the spare tire from the trunk, loosen the lug nuts on the flat tire, jack up the car, remove the flat, attach the spare tire, tighten the bolts, lower the car, and toss the flat into the trunk (boot).  In just that brief interval, I am on my way again.  Carefully!

The drama continues: In the highland town of Mestia I find a tire repair shop.  The “shop” is nothing more than a couple of sheds, but the guy there is quite busy, as you can imagine. 

The repair man finds a puncture in the side wall of my tire and he indicates that the tire is “kaput.”  (I don’t know the Georgian word for “ruined.”)  He looks in his shed for a replacement.  “Nyet.” 

I don’t want to drive down the mountain without a spare tire so I display my best “helpless” facial expression.  Our repair gets an idea.  He inserts an inner tube into my otherwise tubeless tire and I am on my way back to my hotel, where of course, the tire is slowly deflating again.  

Back to the repair shop.  I point to my watch and tell the repair guy that I will return in four hours and he should take his time with the repair.

Thank Heavens!  The repair worked, and two days later I made the three hour drive “coming ‘round the mountain” back down to “civilization.”

Oh, yes. The Mountains?

At the lower levels, the mountains are thick with forest green.  As I ascend, daffodil yellow sprinkles the dark green.  At the higher elevations, marmalade orange joins the mix.  At the summits, an early snowfall sugarcoats the ridges and the peaks.  And at every level, the rivers rush and roar as they scour the narrow gorges. Is it any wonder that generations of writers and mountaineers from Europe and Russia have found escape and adventure in this wilderness?

I can’t imagine a better overview of the history of any region than The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, by Charles King.  King recounts the many devastating invasions over the centuries: Muslims, Mongols, Persians, Turks and finally the Russians.  In the Nineteenth Century the Tsar’s armies came south and after many bloody battles and ruthless ethnic cleansing, they subdued and “pacified” the mountain communities, tribes and nations, from the Black Sea to the Caspian. 

Along with the armies and administrators, Russian writers came seeking a new horizon and a bit of adventure: first Pushkin (1799 – 1837) and later Lermontov (1814 – 1841) and later still, Tolstoy (1828 – 1910).  Pushkin admired of the beauty of the region and wrote an epic romantic poem.* Lermontov and Tolstoy were more realistic and wrote of the dark side of Russian Imperialism.

Also in the Nineteenth Century, a British fellow by the name of Douglas Freshfield (1835 – 1934) led numerous climbing expeditions and made the first recorded ascents of the highest peaks.

Now, I’m no Pushkin and I’m no Freshfield.  And driving a city sedan through the mountains might seem a foolhardy journey in the Greater Caucasus.  But as I ascend and descend the mountain roads and passes, I’d like to think I am in good company with those previous adventurers.  I am enchanted by what I see.  I am inspired by what I hear. 

And next time, I’ll rent a Jeep!


*In a park adjacent to Freedom Square in Tbilisi, the Georgian people have erected a large statue to Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in appreciation of his sympathetic writing about their country.

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