3 borders and an encounter with the Georgian military
14.06.2012 - 16.06.2012 27 °C
We went off hiking again, one last time in Georgia, high up into the Caucasus, in Lago Dekhi National Park. A three day hike beside the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan, culminating at Black Lake, which itself is cut in half by an invisible border between Georgia and Dagestan (or Russia, depending on whose side you are on). There were all these borders, and a military outpost in the wilderness guarding them, so we were told we must take a local guide. And so we set off. Climbing 2,000m the first day over a mere 8.8km. If you are not familiar with things like elevation and walking, that's a hell of a lot of up over a very short distance making for a difficult steep 6 hours walk. Seems to be the only way into the Caucasus - up, up, up - no gentle foothills.
After a night cooking over the fire and sleeping in the tent we set off early to Black Lake. It was a hefty distance of 30km there and back. After another big climb we had an excellent vantage point down the valley to the plains below - Azerbaijan to the left, Georgia to the right.
A few hours later and we spotted two lonely green tents in the vast grassy mountains in the distance, with a Georgian flag flapping in the wind. Arriving at the military base we were immediately offered a seat as well as tea and coffee by the friendly Major (who reminded me a little of Colonel Potter), and given a bowl of dates to munch on. They took our passports and went about whatever it was they had to do while we sat and watched the small base (c. 10 guys) go about their business. A four man border patrol come back to base and disarmed, water was collected, food was made etc. Having never been anywhere near a military base, all this was rather fascinating. They were super friendly and interested in us, and it was another frustrating scenario where you want to be able to speak every language in the world so you can talk to everyone. I was suitably impressed by their hospitality and my luck of experiencing such an environment. Little did I know there was more to come.
We set off to the lake, marching with our 2 person military escort, one soldier in front, Dan and I in the middle and another soldier to the rear, plus the guide. Turns out the Georgian military wouldn't put it past Russia to take out a tourist in Georgia just to piss the country off and wreck their tourist industry. We could believe it too, so were grateful for them being there. Reaching the lake in its beautiful setting it was difficult to imagine that at the other end was Dagestan - human borders really don't show up in nature. At 3,000m I decided not to swim, but Dan decided to make a break for it. Half way across the lake however he decided it was too cold, so swam back.
Back to base, it was 3pm, and with at least 3 hours walking ahead of us we were keen to get going. But instead we were sat down, offered tea and coffee and had no idea what was going on and what was taking so long. Within half an hour a table had been placed before us and set for 7. And slowly the food began to be brought out. We were to dine with the men at base, including the 2 commanding offices. Wow. Quite an unexpected encounter. We really felt quite honoured, and surprised, to the point where we both ate meat as there had been no chance to communicate we were vegetarians, nor did we want to seem ungrateful for such a treat. But also, in context, these guys must get so bored up there day on day, month on month, it must be great to have a distraction. As well as feasting we managed to polish off a large bottle of chacha (grappa like spirit, usually homemade, 50-ish% proof) over many toasts, mostly involving something to do with Georgian and NZ military, borders, women or peace. Before stumbling down the mountain and back to our tent just before the dark set in.