June 09, 2019

A short-cut over the mountains to the Katshki Pillar

I did not want to retrace my steps. All the transport from Ushguli went back to Mestia. But there was an alternative, a mountain pass to the city of Kutaisi and on to the Katshki column, a rather unusual church set on top of large pillar. A difficult journey, as it would be on a track built by the Georgian national electricity company erecting pylons to connect electricity to the Svaneti region, but it would also save me a day in travel time.

I asked around in Ushguli. I was given vague responses. "Hang around the bridge where the cars arrive from Mestia, someone might take you for 600 GEL ($200 USD)", "There was one driver last week who wanted to do it, but that was the first one for a while", "No chance. The only way is back and then a bus from Mestia to Kutaisi".

I packed and intended to catch a four-wheel drive back to Mestia the next afternoon, returning with the day trippers. And then went for dinner at my tower accommodation and met Ivan. Everything changed.

Ivan had paid a lot of money to hire a car to do this trip the next day. He had already got five others to go along with him and he was after more people to help reduce the cost. Perfect. I was in. We started at 8 AM the next morning.

The view towards Ushguli and the Russian border from 2,500 Metres (8,000 feet)
A large Toyota Land cruiser was waiting outside the Nizhatadze tower the next morning. The driver, Mikheil, and his offsider spoke only Georgian and Russian. That was not a huge problem until we started driving off on the Mestia road.

The thought that we had paid an exorbitant amount of money just to travel back to Mestia crossed everyone's mind.

Then he turned off the road, unlocked a gate and we were off to Kutaisi. This track was terrible, rutted and often at a 45-degree angle. It was clearly not maintained as a road.

However bad it got, and whatever angle the vehicle was at, and  no matter how many hundred metres the dropoff at the side was (obviously, without any safety barriers) Mikheil kept going. With his phone at his ear. Or texting while looking at his phone. It added that extra bit of unexpected frisson to the journey.

Mikheil, phone glued to his ear, navigates the road at an unusual angle. With one hand.
As we climbed higher through the Latpara pass Ushguli was only just visible against the backdrops of hills and mountains. There were no other vehicles, hikers, or even electricity workers. We had the road to ourselves.

Suddenly there was a screeching noise from somewhere inside the car. We came to a grinding halt. Mikheil got out, looked under the car, and then opened the bonnet and started to poke around. We were going to be here for a while.

The end of the road? Maybe some pylon repair workers are due soon.
There were worse places to break down. The views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers were stunning. The air was thin and cool, but I would never have had the chance to explore this area otherwise.

Bizarrely, a few hundred metres away was a lonely wooden box. It was a long drop toilet. Maybe it was built for the workers who constructed this track, or for those who kept the electricity on. It had  perhaps the best view of any toilet in the world.

The best view from a toilet in the world?
Mikheil got the car going again and we set off at a rather gingerly pace until he got his confidence back again and headed into switchbacks as we headed back down the mountain, his phone still in his hand.

If the car broke down, we could at least now coast to the bottom. The journey down was uneventful and it only took an hour before we joined a normal flat, paved road and headed south towards the Katskhi pillar.

The winding track built for the introduction to electricity to Ushguli
The pillar, rather like the Greek monasteries in Meteora, is host to a small church on top. 40 metres high (130 feet) the limestone rock column rises above the surrounding forest. First settled in the 9th century, it was abandoned until the collapse of the Soviet Union gave new impetus to religion, and the buildings were rebuilt and the monks returned.

A small track takes you to its base, where there is a winch and pulley used to bring supplies to the two monks who permanently live in the small building beside the church.

The Katshki pillar and a possible dinner
There is a small metal ladder for access, with signs warning against any over-eager tourists from climbing it. The monks clearly want to be left alone in their devotions.

A small Russian truck, belching fumes, made its way close to the base as I was leaving. Bringing the vital supplies the monks needed; water, bread, fruit and several cases of Georgian red wine. Perhaps being stuck at the top of the Katshki pillar would not be too bad after all.

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