In the Adjara region we find plenty of traces of its Muslim origin, from mosques to old Ottoman bridges. And a range of surprises, high up in the mountains on both sides of the Goderji Pass.
Once again we have decided to take the more direct, yet slower, rough road inland from Batumi, instead of the more convenient tarmac further north. I want to see the Adjara region, a semi-autonomous area within Georgia that not so long ago played a crucial role in the country’s politics, thanks to Aslan Abashidze, variously described as strongman, warlord and mafia boss – until he was forced to resign in 2004.
The Adjara region has a significant number of Muslim people, due to it having been occupied for hundreds of years by the Ottoman Turks, and we find the traces back, in the form of several mosques. The first one, in Kinchuari, is all corrugated iron; the one in Khulo, where we overnight, was originally built as a church, but has now been converted into mosque, beautifully wood-panelled on the inside. Where many of the churches we attempt to visit are closed – like the churches in Mestia earlier, but also the nearby Shkalta Monastery -, the imam in Khulo is happy to show us in.
Other attractions along the Adjariskhali River valley, that we follow upstream, are various wine houses, not immediately expected in a Muslim-dominated area. We didn’t explore them – we are, after another week, still not blown away by Georgian wine. There are also several forts, badly ruined, and thus also not worth exploring. But, definitely worth exploring, there are a number of Ottoman stone bridges, the types we have seen long ago, across the border in Turkey. We came across the Makhuntseti bridge – also the starting point for of adventure activities, like wild water rafting and zip lining -, the large and steep Dandalo bridge, originally probably from the 9th or 10th Century, and a third one, the cute, little Purtio bridge. All have been restored, and strengthened, over the years, but their pretty, curved forms have been preserved wonderfully.
The idea was to go glamping – yes, indeed, voluntarily. On top of the Taro mountain, near the village of Khulo, is a glamping site with about seven luxurious tents and some support tents. Including, as it turns out, a dormitory tent, the only place still available. But ‘dormitory tent’, with 20 beds or so, doesn’t that compromise the whole concept of glamping somewhat? So we opt for a simple guesthouse, instead, with a private room – but we do cross the valley in the small cable car, to Taro, the next morning, just for the experience and the views.
The last one-and-a-half hours, from Khulo, which is below 1000 m, to the Goderji Pass at 2635 m, is tough going, over a poor, bumpy road full of holes, passing pretty poor villages, with old houses. So nothing had prepared us for the village of Goderji itself, just below the pass, which is being developed as a ski resort. Lots of hotels are being built, right now, and one of them, the Ambassador Hotel, is already operational. It is kind of strange to order the perfect cappuccino and cheesecake in the utterly luxurious surroundings of the hotel, having just gone through our driving ordeal. I didn’t think there were many people staying, either – middle of the summer, anyhow -, but everybody was extremely friendly, good-humoured, and full of confidence for the future.
On the other side of the pass, the landscape quickly changed. Initially, we encountered still some villages, but it becoming drier and drier, soon the population density dropped. No more houses, no more cattle. No more oncoming traffic, either.
The reason for lack of oncoming traffic became clear somewhat further down, where we found a long row of cars waiting. Usually not a good sign, and indeed, a landslide had not only blocked the entire road, but had also caused a fracture in the road surface, creating a meter, or so, vertical jump. Two dragline excavators had just started to clear the mess. In the next two hours I have been looking with growing admiration, how these two in the shortest possible time dug away the landslide, and a bit of the roadside, to create a new road. Despite the impatience of the average Georgian, but equally of a team of German motor bikers, who – honouring good Georgian traffic habits – decided that they did not need to wait in line, but could drive all the way upfront, thus blocking the coming and going of the trucks that drove on and off to take the earth and rocks away. An impressive effort, only slightly marred by the chaos that developed once the road was free again – you can imagine!
Ten minutes later, we hit the tarmac again, and drove on comfortably the Tmogvi, close to the Vardzia cave city. Which was not anymore this afternoon’s target, but tomorrow’s.