Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Day 8

22 September
Route: Ambrolauri - Nikortsminda - Tkibuli - Zestafoni - Khashuri - Gori - Tblisi
Distance: 244 km

Our final day is here at last. We expect paved roads most of the way with a couple of stops to see Georgia's holiest church at Nikortsminda, and then Stalin's birthplace in Gori. We will finish in Tbilisi, the capital. Along the way we see abandoned factory towns stretched out for kilometers. These factories date back to the Soviet era and don't seem worth reviving. We also see new construction everywhere assuming it is faster, better and cheaper to start from scratch. There is also what seems to be an abandoned air force building with a lone groundskeeper. 

Georgian Monk at Ubisa

Monastery at Ubisa

As we near the end of the challenge, Mark and Eric begin to visualize their next escapade. A motorcycle trek to Tehran. I am not worried since given their sense of direction they will probably end up in Paris. 

Our hotel is supposed to be a quaint old-fashioned building on a cliff next to Tbilisi's famous Metekhi Church. When we finally arrive at our hotel, the street conditions are worse than anything we have seen to date. We have to park a couple of blocks away and haul our stuff the last few hundred meters. 

I enter the lobby to find Jim freshly showered, and relaxing with a beer. He and Alan skipped all of the challenge points for the day and headed straight to Tbilisi. The smile on Jim's face lights up the room. He is clearly happy to be off the road. 

Unfortunately, for Trish and Tim, who have to date made few errors, missed a turn. Their adventure does not end until 3 hours after the rest of us made it to the hotel. They discovered a route over a mountain that made our trip of Day 7 look like a jolly by comparison. From the stories we hear, they are lucky to have made it in tonight at all. 

They recuperate quickly and join us for a fantastic dinner sponsored by Security Xchange, as a thank you to all that Paul Thomas has done for them over the years. The restaurant gives us a private dining room, great service and just the right amount of local folk dancing and singing...about 3 to 4 minutes at a time. 

We had a great time, and announced the winners of the challenge. Marc Zeiger and Dave Skeber won the overall first prize as they systematically hit as many of the challenge questions as possible, and were fantastic drivers/navigators to boot. 
Congratulations to Marc and Dave

It was obvious to all that Mark Avison and Eric Van Muijen would win the Bonkers Award! 

For the rest of us, we were happy to have had the chance to participate in this crazy challenge of 1,957 kilometers. Albeit it was actually more like 2,100 to 2,250 kilometers by the time we included all the wrong turns and extracurricular activities. 
Most everyone stays up until they have to catch a ride to the airport at either 1:00 or 2:00 am. Aravind, Attila, Dave, Trish and I stay an extra day to debrief and catch up with paperwork. It gives me time to discover Tbilisi. It  is amazing. Blocks and blocks of streets are literally torn up and being replaced with cobblestones by hand. Simultaneously the facades of these blocks are being completely revamped. Very much an old city, with a fresh look. This is a very cool town. 
We accomplished the challenge!
Epilogue 1: 

Throughout our trip in Georgia we noticed the police all had brand new cars, smart looking uniforms and fantastically designed modern police stations. At some point or other, we all had a chance to chat with the police and universally acknowledged how professional they seemed. 

Also, it seemed the general population was quite patriotic waving flags and shouting such things as "Georgia is great!" It was very apparent to all of us that elections were in the offing as posters and political demonstrations were everywhere. Upon my return to Washington DC, I read the following article:

Epilogue 2: 
It's 4:30 am and I am at a cafe having a Turkish coffee while awaiting my flight. A security agent walks up and asks, "are you Mr. Trapanese? Didn't you hear us trying to page you?" He escorts me back out through security, and through several more layers of security to the baggage handling area. I see my suitcase open with the canon shell I had traded for in Dadivank sitting next to it. Expecting this, I was prepared for an explanation as I did not want to give up on this souvenir that all the Challengers had signed. I was surprised to hear the security officer congratulate me on winning the race (I didn't, but had some medals in my suitcase). He apologized for unpacking my suitcase, and wanted me to repack it to make sure nothing was missing. He asked for my understanding as he had seen through the x-ray machine a very large metal object resembling an explosive casing. I had fun showing him our route and talking to him about what a great time we all had. 

Epilogue 3: 
Having survived being Eric's teammate, the wild's of Armenia and the craziness of Georgia, Mark returns to Heathrow to find his car has a flat!

Day 7

21 September
Route: Mestia - Ushguli - Tsana - Lentekhi - Tsageri - Ambrolauri
Distance: 200 km

Day 7 will be the last of the tough routes of our 8 day expedition. It is expected to take 10 to 12 hours to go 200 km. We will be crossing over a 2,600 meter pass near the Russian border with views of 5,000 meter peaks. If it rains, some of the intended "roads" would be impassable. So far this trip we have had great weather, but being in the mountains anything can happen.

We set out at 7:30 am in very good spirits. We have had a blast so far, and only have today and tomorrow left in our Challenge. As in Day 5, we set out in small convoys in case of a breakdown, with particular attention to Virus Enforcer and its oil leak. Although, to James credit his sealing job has worked so far.

It is a fun ride of muddy, winding roads to the town of Ushguli, Europe's highest permanently inhabited town. We take a break there prior to traversing what will be our highest pass of the week at 2,600 meters. 

Mt. Shkhara on the Georgia / Russia border is less than 10 km away. Mt. Shkhara at just over 5,000 meters is only 65 km east of Mt. Elbrus, Europe's tallest peak, and contains the densest collection of high peaks and the largest glacial system in the Caucasus, the Ullu-Shiran-Bezengi. The region takes it name from the dramatic Bezengi Wall for which Shkhara marks the eastern end. Our view of the surrounding peaks and glaciers is magnificent.

We carefully track our progress on our GPS units to ensure we continue to move generally in the direction of the next waypoint. As luck would have it, Eric, Mark, Kevin and James come across Attila and Aravind, our organizers who point them in the wrong direction. As the teams move toward Russia, Attila and Aravind realize their mistake and chase after them. They rise up to almost 3,000 meters at which point, Attila and Aravind suffer a flat. James being a master at such things, replaces it in very little time. They regain the road in the correct direction, but pull over in a village at night for dinner, and arrive at the hotel 14 hours after setting out that morning. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us have pretty good luck and make our way to Ambrolauri. At one point we do encounter road construction where the entire road is covered with dirt and debris. Confronted with this sight, we are immediately concerned we will have to backtrack several hours to find an alternative route. A quick discussion with the foreman we discover he speaks Spanish. He directs the bulldozer to clear a path, and we are on our way once again.

Our hotel in Ambrolauri is directly in front of city hall. Upon our arrival, we find the magnificent site of 6 John Deere tractors parked in front of city hall. This is obviously a country that knows what it is doing. 
Well almost. We discover the relatively new 5 story hotel does not have an elevator, but it does have an elaborately large space dedicated to a staircase with the flimsiest banisters. One would figure if you had budgetary issues, you would not cut out the elevator and banisters. There is a ramp for luggage and wheelchairs, but it's incline would be better suited for a ski jump. Our team volunteers to carry a person in a wheelchair up the front entrance, as well as up to his room on the first floor. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Day 6

20 September
Route: Batumi - Poti - Zugdidi - Jvari - Mestia 
Distance: 254 km

Kevin and Falcon in Batumi
We have planned a very easy day today knowing how hard Day 5 was going to be. Most everyone got a good night's rest in Batumi. Those that did not were relegated to the navigator position as directions were pretty easy with paved roads most of the way. 

Batumi at night

Virus Enforcer Secret Weapons
Kevin working on oil leak
Before departing for the day Tim took James to a local garage to buy some resin and oil. James and Kevin had cracked a joint near the oil pan on Day 5, and their car was leaking oil like crazy, including the driving entrance of the hotel. James stuck a piece of gum and some resin in the crack, and then wrapped it up with duct tape. He then filled engine up with oil. In this words, the leak is now "all bunged up". With some spare oil on hand, James and Kevin were on their way. 

Inguri Dam
On the way is Inguri Dam, the world's second tallest concrete arch water damn. It is 20% taller than Hoover dam and is only second due to a recently completed dam in China. 

Shelley just before take off
To date, the competition has been relatively tame with all of us concentrating on challenge points from answering questions based on local knowledge and geographical coordinates. There are very minor points for who comes in first as we did not want folks too motivated to race around the Caucasus. As we were leaving the Inguri Damn, I noticed Shelley moving at a speed that was not obvious she was racing, but fast enough to make me suspicious. Seems she was thrilled to have paved 
Fish Market
roads and loved zipping around the mountain turns. Shelley and John did come in first today. 

Marc and Dave with Omar
Proving that even an easy day can be eventful, Marc and Dave slowed down for a man on the road. As they were passing by him, the gentleman opened the door and hopped in. Omar their new passenger was extremely drunk, sweaty and very talkative. It was only midday and he did not stop talking. Ursus Contentus had no idea how to get rid of him. Marc tried pawning him off on me or Paul or anyone that walked by while we were trying to answer a question at an old bridge. They were stuck with him for hours.The experience is to funny to describe. In the overall eight days of the challenge, this was the only time I used my hand sanitizer!
Kevin and Kim on old bridge
Kevin and James leaving bridge

Tim and Trish stopped to investigate some beehives along the road we all kept seeing. Trish couldn't get her sanitizer out fast enough when offered an old spoon to taste some honey. She could have used some of Michael's schnapps. Nonetheless, she gracefully bought a jar that we all tasted the following morning over breakfast, honeycomb and all. 
Honey tasting
The beekeeper

We all zoomed along, avoiding cows, dogs, people and fallen boulders. It was a nice winding road ending in the very scenic town of Mestia. More evidence of Georgia coming up in the world. Almost every house, building and street in the town is being renovated. It is an extraordinarily picturesque town of wood and stone that could rival any ski resort in the world for character. If it were not so remote, I would love to come back. 
Georgian speed bumps

For tonight, we are staying at the Ushba guesthouse. Not hard to find as it is a small town, but not easy as it looks like a construction zone. 

Zach and Attila in Mestia

Marc preparing for Day 7
Dinner at Ushba Guesthouse

Defensive towers in Mestia
As night falls on Mestia, and we walk around admiring some of the old defensive towers, there is still no sign of Traveling with the Stars. We finally track them down through text messaging and they are 100 km away. On what was supposed to be an easy day, they spotted a river that was too tempting to ignore. As they were driving, they noticed a stranded car. It seems it is normal for folks to drive their cars in the river and wash it there. This car drove in a little too far. Mark and Eric stopped to lend a hand. Unfortunately, they did not have a tow rope. Undeterred, they proceeded to fashion one, out of duct tape. They did eventually braid together a duct tape rope. It failed a couple of times before some folks looking on from the river bank came down to help with a push. 

The video does not show that after several attempts, one of the local "rescuers" ambled back to his car, got a real tow rope, and voila, problem solved. It was several hours before this real tow rope appeared. I am guessing the local was either too amused by our Challengers capers or he did not want to offend their good intentions.