By 2008 we had become very confident travelling with Becky and Katy;now we had done trips to Morocco, Ghana, India and Laos. So with 5 weeks of holiday coming up we thought a trip to Georgia, ferry across the Black Sea to Ukraine, and Eastern Europe would be a good adventure and a bit different to the other places we had been.
Georgia appealed with its dramatic landscape of the Caucus Mountains and glacial rivers. A place of extremes, high summer pastures with meadows of wild flowers and wild craggy, snow peaked mountains.
Riding in the back of a jeep, travelling along very rough roads that were cut through walls of overhanging ice in places, we arrived high up in the Tusheti mountains near the border with Chechnya. It was a beautiful place and we soon found a homestay that would put us up for a few days. Elizabeth and her family looked after us, cooked great meals, and her teenage son, Leo, reluctantly took us on treks far across this empty wilderness, and on horseback to high altitude lakes. We either camped or stayed in stone houses in semi deserted villages. The villages clung to the hills and consisted of many tall watch towers, which were places of sanctuary and refuge during times of conflict. This area is only occupied during the summer when the sheep are brought up to graze. Winters are extremely harsh and the dwindling mountain population return to the valleys.
We climbed steep narrow paths that took us high up into the hills. We had views of the snow peaked mountains of Chechnya.
With horses loaded with our camping kit we went off for a couple of days with Leo, manoeuvring our horses on very narrow mountain trails that after a full day in the saddle reached a beautiful lake set in steep green hills.
After each adventure it was pleasing to return to Elizabeth’s welcoming home and food.
We liked Georgia, a great outdoor place, friendly people, and beautiful dramatic scenery. There wasn’t the colour here like you get in India, Africa or the Far East. The fabrics and markets are not bright and patterned, but the people are characters and warm hearted. The harsh rugged environment has made their faces gnarled and full of expression. We said our good byes to Elizabeth had a few shots of the local firewater with her family for breakfast and set of back down the the mountain road.
Impressed by the mountains we decided to travel to the other side of Georgia to the region of Svaneti high up in the Caucus range surrounded by 5000m plus peaks, sandwiched between South Ossetia and and Abkazia. Svaneti was developing as a new adventure tourist destination and Mestia was the base we were heading for, where we found a nice home stay. We climbed up high above Mestia to visit a Glacier before going on a long hard multi day trek that we had planned for the next day.
Whilst out on the glacier above Mestia we received a text from Garry our friend from home. ” Are you leaving Georgia, the Russians are invading” !!!
It was quiet and beautiful where we were. How could there be a war brewing? No one knew what was about to unravel. The next morning we were to meet our guide for the trek, but we had decided and been advised by the Embassy to stay in Mestia. Our trek guide was there early in the morning, ice axe in his belt and wearing breaches. He looked the part, like some early Everest explorer. He was very disappointed that we were cancelling and hadn’t heard the about the War with the Russians.
During the day more information filtered through, mainly from friends and family at home. Georgian news was very patchy and only in Georgian, showing repeatedly a shot down bloody Russian pilot which was very disturbing. It became clear the Russians were moving in on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the regions either side of Svaneti where we were. They were moving towards Zugdidi to the south of Svaneti too. We were in a bad place, although safe in Mestia, we had Russia to the North, Abkhazia to the West, South Ossetia to the East, and Zugdidi to the South. The only road out of this very mountainous region was through Zugdidi. We thought we may become stranded in Mestia.
We were frightened. We had difficult decisions to make. Clinging to every piece of information that came in we tried to formulate a plan. We were worried by the danger we would be putting Becky and Katy in. The dilemma we had, should we stay put, where it was safe, but this could go on for months, or try and escape through Zugdidi before the Russians took it. We moved to a different home stay where the lovely 21 yeaar old Tamona spoke very good English. Over the next day and night we deliberated. We had slept badly. Eager for reliable news the homestay tried to resurrect their satellite television so we could get the BBC, but unfortunately Tamona’s mum had lost an important part of the device. We had to rely on texts from my mum who had now set up a kind of communications operation in Oxted. Scanning BBC news, and communicating our movements and intentions to the British Embassy in Tiblisi. It was a very worrying time for her too.
News 8 july 2008: “Russia bombing Gori,South Ossetia, heavy bombardment in town of Ts’khinvali, and port of Poti bombed. Russian area of advance moving southwards, and Russian tanks moving towards the capital”
With Tamona’s kind help we manged to get a friend of hers to drive us to Turkey about 5 hours away. It was a brave act for the driver who had to return to Mestia back though whatever troubles were developing. Accompanied by some Polish people and Israelis we piled into the Ford Transit van. We sat parked in the main square of Mestia, waiting for our departure at midday. Helen and I were sat either side of Becky and Katy so we could protect or shield them if anything nasty happened. It was an apprehensive time. Tamona and her Mum stood outside to wave us off. Then the message came though from England from Kate at the embassy “Advice was that travel to Zugdidi was too dangerous ” A few moments later Tamona heard the news. The terrified look on her face told us what she was thinking. Should we go or not? We had organised the transport and were ready to leave. It was a tricky decision.
We had about two and a half hours to get to Zugdidi on mountain roads. In the mountains we were pretty safe. There were villages like the ones we had stayed in with friendly people. We thought the best thing to do was set off and get closer to Zugdidi and see how bad things were. If we got information from people travelling the opposite way and it seemed too dangerous we would either turn back or leave the van if the others wanted to continue, and we would take refuge in a village.
Eventually we left Mestia and began our journey into the unknown, snaking our way down the hairpin road through magnificent scenery. We followed our progress on the map and Becky was texting our position to my mum in UK , where she was relaying our movements to the British Embassy in Tiblisi. We were dry mouthed with fear as we got nearer to Zugdidi. By 2.00pm we were by a lake 40km north of Zugdidi. As we got closer many people either on foot or in the backs of trucks were fleeing the city. We were alone travelling in the opposite direction. 2.15pm, news from home”Zugdidi is being bombed by the Russians now, it is on the BBC”.
The next hour was a long one. we proceeded towards the town just hoping for good luck. Our fate was out of our control. We looked to the sky hoping not to see Russian military aircraft. The city was deserted. We drove at high speed through the empty streets, swerving round a group of cows that had moved in.
As we neared Turkey some hours later the mood became more relaxed as there were people on the streets again. In Batumi on the Black sea coast the streets were full of people wearing sarongs walking back from the beach. It suddenly didn’t seem like a country at war.
At 6.45 we reached the Turkish border. It was a huge relief. We were safe. We hadn’t seen anything nasty. We said good bye to our brave driver who now had to get back through Zugdidi to his family in Mestia. We wished him luck and our thoughts were with him.
Once across the border we were greeted by the Polish Consul who was there to meet Polish people fleeing Georgia. He asked if we wanted to go to Warsaw. We said “maybe one day” we had planned to travel in Turkey for the rest of our holiday. He replied” I have the Polish President’s plane(Polish Airforce One) in North Turkey, I can fly you to Warsaw, free of charge of course” “Ah ok that sounds good, thankyou very much”
We were driven to a hotel in Trabzon, given food and the next morning taken to the airport. All “free of charge of course” as the friendly Consul reminded us. There was a good spirit among our fellow travellers. It had changed from fear and apprehension to a rather exciting and uplifting adventure.
Once airborne our new friends we had escaped with, who had been great in keeping morale up, sorted out for Becky and Katy to go to the Presidents part of the plane and visit the cockpit. They were the only children that had been rescued. While they were in the cockpit, when we were flying over Ukraine, the pilot pointed out cities that we had planned to visit. He banked the plane steeply so Katy could see out of the side window of the cockpit.
Once we arrived at Warsaw, we walked down the steps of the aircraft to be greeted by many TV and news reporters.
After an interview for Polish TV and talks with reporters we set off into Warsaw and hired an apartment for a few days to rest and think what we should do next. A trip to a book shop to buy a guide book for Poland was a good start. My mobile goes off while in the shop. Its the BBC. I give quite a lengthy interview over the phone.
We continued our travels in south east Poland, trekking in wooded hills, crossing over the mountains to Slovakia. All was back to normal and we continued our holiday.