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GEORGIA    13/9-12/10 2017

Photos  Map&Plan  Diary 1 2 3 4 5

 GENERAL INFO (Jump to Diary)
Georgia covers an area of 69.700 square kilometre. It is a unitary semi-presidential constitutional republic with 3.720.400 citizens. 87% are Christians while 11% are Muslims.
Their currency is Georgian lari (GEL), which is worth 2,89 Danish Krone and 0,39. The GDP is US$14.46 billion.

The climate of Georgia is extremely diverse, considering the nation's small size. There are two main climatic zones, roughly corresponding to the eastern and western parts of the country. The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range plays an important role in moderating Georgia's climate and protects the nation from the penetration of colder air masses from the north. The Lesser Caucasus Mountains partially protect the region from the influence of dry and hot air masses from the south.
Because of its high landscape diversity and low latitude, Georgia is home to about 5.601 species of animals, including 648 species of vertebrates (more than 1% of the species found worldwide) and many of these species are endemics. Unfortunately, hunting is a big thing in Georgia, and seeing any wildlife causes huge challenges.
The common pheasant (also known as the Colchian Pheasant) is an endemic bird of Georgia which has been widely introduced throughout the rest of the world.
Among the more interesting mammals are  Asiatic cheetah Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, Caucasian wildcat Felis silvestris caucasica, Caucasian lynx Lynx lynx dinniki, Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica, Persian leopard Panthera pardus ciscaucasica, Caspian tiger Panthera tigris virgata, Striped hyena Hyaena hyaena, Steppe wolf Canis lupus campestris, Eurasian wolf Canis lupus lupus, Syrian brown bear Ursus arctos syriacus, Moose Alces alces, Goitered gazelle Gazella subgutturosa, Wild goat Capra aegagrus, West Caucasian Tur Capra caucasica, East Caucasian Tur Capra cylindricornis, Argali Ovis ammon and Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra. I guess I will be luck and perhaps spot the common pheasant.
I am convinced the Abies nordmanniana trees will be truly interesting to see in the wild: The most common Christmas tree in Europe, and something I have worked intensely with for eight years. I been offered a chance to visit some of the main arias for seed harvesting.

The first two diaries are about my work, overseeing the harvest of Christmas tree cones, the rest about true adventures in this beautiful country. Well, except the second half of diary4.
50 airplanes are on schedule, only one delayed; guess which one! That mean we miss our Istanbul connection, but within five minutes, we are on another flight to Tbilisi. Unfortunately, the heavy suitcases don't make the transfer as swiftly as us, and we find ourself left without in Tbilisi, in the early morning. It is a first in endless years, I have travelled with a suitcases, and I failed to get the sticker with the number-code in Copenhagen. Never the less, the friendly and effective staff in the airport find it online, and tells us to come back in the evening.

We find a taxi and drive into the tourist quarter of Tbilisi, to find a hotel. It is around five in the morning. Despite the town is completely quiet, all hotels seems to be fully booked. It is getting light, and we figure; we can do without a room. A short walk through the really idyllic old town brings us down to the river and an open restaurant, serving beer to the late guests. We get tea and local specialities; Khachhapuri Imerectian;Flat bread with cheese in, and Flurkey Lobiani; a bread with bean paste.

As the sun raises over the old churches and the castle, the city slowly wakes up. My travel companion is Steffen, a great Dane, who have been here several times. He show me some of the iconic buildings along the river front. Ancient churches with icons, insane new constructions, only to please the eye, houses partly tern down by earthquakes, overgrown brick homes, many beautiful bronze statues and much more.

But; we are here to work, and finally, we have to take a taxi to the co-operators factory site at nine. I get the grand tour and some refreshments, while I book some rooms for the  evening. I forget to find the GPS points - a real error! Then we pinch a car, and go sightseeing in the greater area. No sense in driving 5-6 hours up to Ambrolauri and beyond without suitcases. The car is right handled although they also drive in the right side. And NO; two rights do not make it right!

The first stop is a 100 hectare tree nursery. As they only speak Georgian an a bit of Russian, it take some time explaining to them; we are not customers, we want to sell them more seeds. Then Steffen mention our business partner (who is former minister, banker, oligarchs, whatever), and then we get the grand tour. And with grand, I mean GRAND! The local geek and the one I brought, exchange Latin names like machineguns. I just chat a bit with the daughter and make a few photos.

A friend of our recommended the "nearby" David Gareji monastery. It is only 65 kilometres south. However, the road start out real bad within the capital, and then it get real challenging. Potholes, rocks and trails. The landscape, on the other hand, get more and more astonishing. Roaming hills with yellow grass and scatted cows, sunflower fields and harvested wheat. A few bushes, but mainly the dead grass and barren sandstone. At one point, we passes a salt lake, but here are no flamingos. The GPS had a optimistic 90 minutes estimate, but the views and condition of the road make it last three hours.

As we approaches our target; David Gareji monastery, we have to pull aside for huge tourist buses - which seems so out of place, out here in the rural hills and narrow gravel road. The old parts of the monastery is caves, cut into the sandstone, the newer ones are made of the local sandstone. We see the buildings and the clever rain-gathering system along with an agama. It is getting late in the afternoon, and we figure, we better head back to ask for our luggage.

The first part of the road is just as bad, and then we are pulled over by a soldier in the middle of nowhere. Something about shooting. We wait on the gravel road for an hour, not hearing a single fire cracker. When we then head towards Tbilisi, the trail is getting better and better - although they never get real good. We passes a huge industrial area with a bull statue, some larks and sparrows and a lot of yellow grass.

The airport have out luggage waiting, and while I get the company phone from my suitcase, I return to the counter to get it up and running. The girl who sold me the SIM-card in the early morning, said android was way more tricky than my Apple. I spend an hour, but apparently, the phone is locked by a Danish operator.

It has been a long day - or actually two, and I am longing for a room with bed and shower. But it turns out to be real tricky finding the hotels by their addresses in Tbilisi. They use their own letters in Georgia, and many streets have been renamed. We try the name of the hotel in the GPS, and a intense drive through rush-hour Tbilisi, brings us to Royal Hotel - which is NOT Royal Georgian Hotel. It have turned black, but with internet help, I find some coordinates in another part of town.

I think we are there, but when we ask four taxi-drivers, they don't know the hotel. I find a street-name and the right number, then the nametag - 20 meters away from them. They only had one room, but the other hotel is close bye. I give up, find the computer and are lucky; two young men, who speak English, stop and help. They are borne in the area, but don't know the place. It turns out to be right next to their old school, 50 metre away. I am so glad I have bothered finding GPS points for hundreds of sights and hotels for my future travelling! Addresses are useless!

We head down towards the river and find a nice restaurant. Then at nine, we head back to our hotels, and I start on diary, photos, accounting and repacking. And then a couple of hours sleeping...

15/9 Despite the lack of sleep, and the demanding driving, I don't sleep as good as I hoped. At nine, I meet up with Steffen, and head out of town towards Ambrolauri. It is a perfect highway, and we are out on the countryside quite soon. A pit-stop at a supermarket to stock food and water, and later to get breakfast. The mountains get bigger, and we drive through some in long tunnels. In one area, the air is filled with kites, buzzards and vultures.

Gori is a bigger city we passes, then it turn real rural. The road narrows down, and the first trucks start to show down the rest of the traffic. One minibus have a entire haystack on the roof, while most cars look rather familiar. The shops along the road sell watermelons for ten kilometres, then hammocks, birdsnests and beach-chairs for another ten kilometre stretches. Then it is bread, followed by pottery and honey. The characteristic cross shaped churches are everywhere, some dating 1000 years back - or more.

We pass two passes, one offering a great view to the lowlands. Where we started on the yellow plain, it is now dense beech, oak and other leaf-trees which dominates. Some of the beech forests look so much like the Danish. Further up, the conifers take over. On the top, the dark Abies completely dominates.
Herdsmen watch six cows, three pigs or 30 turkeys.
One town was build in the Soviet time, and it is easy to see; huge blocks, disintegrating significantly and huge factories, almost disintegrated.

The top of the mountains here are limestone, which have vertical walls at the very top. Way behind them, even higher chains of mountains have some snow on their peaks. We are in good time, and the driver of the day; Steffen, give me the scenic tour around the valley. Despite the roads was washed away years ago, the houses are quite big and well fenced in by iron walls. Many houses are made of heavy timber.

The entire valley and the sides are one big grit of minor trails, one more destroyed than the next. Amazingly enough, my GPS recognises most of these gravel trails. Never the less, I fear driving around here by my self, finding the teams and back home. I have no problem with the destroyed trails, the river crossings and the 45 degree climbs, but navigating and remembering where which location actually is, might cause me problems in the beginning.

We find the scattered houses, known as the village of Ukeshi, and the drying barn we are going to fill. We are supposed to collect hundreds of ton of cones within the next 14 days, with the help of some 70 locals. Next to the barn is a metal house, filled with ropes, brand new climbing harness and other safety gear. Here, we also find the tractor-like tires for our 4WD. We put them on, and head back to the huge house, we have rented. A local woman have made us fried potatoes, and they are served with local nice fresh cheese and tasty tomatoes.

Steffen walks back to the barn and the crew in the dark, while I process pictures and write diary. The day was full sun and above 30 degree, but in the evening, temperature drops to 24C, and I find my fleece jacket.
Photos from the first part.

16/9 After breakfast, we head out to the barn to meet some more people. I'm dispatched to Shota, and we head out to sector 17 and meet up with a lot of pickers and collectors. Some arriving by city cars (goods know how!), one on horse and others by ancient tractors and old Soviet 4X4s. The pickers get a course in the safety harness and the way we want them to pick the cones. It might be tempting not to use the line, or brake off entire branches, but then you will have to find another job. Safety first, and it is actually more efficient to be able to pick with both hands. You can reach the individual cones, and leave the branches with next year cones, on the tree. Then each picker sign their contracts, and head out to their designated sectors.

As the pickers start to harvest, I desperately try to capture them with my camera. Then we head out to another brigade, harvesting in another area. It is on spoiled trails, rivers, knee-deep mud and right through the steep forest-slopes. The ponds on the road, down to one meter in diameter, have attracted lots of frogs, and I even see some tadpoles. The first part is in the valley, which was flooded earlier this summer. Now, it is nice grassing for the many cows. Most of these gentle creatures, have loud bells around their necks.

As we wait for the first bags to be filled, I botanises a bit. Here are quite some interesting plants, some familiar like the succulents, other strange cousins to elder and thistles. The younger Christmas trees, growing underneath the huge ones, seems to grow extremely slow: Here, it seems like two centimetres is the average, while those in the sun can manage 30 or more each year.

We meet up with Steffen at a well, and I head home for a short lunch brake with him. Steffen hear what he believe to be bee-eaters, and despite they are real high up, he is right! Then we head out to some of his sections, and start putting seals on the filled bags. Origin is essential, and at the same time, we supervise the safety and ecological impact. We get a few samples of the top branches to estimate next years harvest. It seems like it have been an extreme dry summer. The spring buds have only grown to half size, and are strangely light green.

After some time, I get to drive, and the path demands attention. Some have been ploughed up by 6X6 trucks, carrying out dead stems, others have been altered significantly by the melting snow and springs rain. As we try to locate one brigade, we meet up with some other pickers in-between two sectors. Steffen ask, if they work for the other company, having the other sector, and they say yes. But the placement of their bags with cones, and the broken-off branches indicate they have been in our section. One is wearing our company's coat, another is picking at the other section, but without any safety line. Apparently, they are pirates, and when I pull out my camera, they get busy.

As it darkens, we head back to the barn to receive the bags, and to my big surprise; I actually find my way back!. The seals are checked, and all the bags get weighted. Then they are placed after origin in the drying barn. As the sun disappear, the temperature drops, and the birds are replaced with bats. I let Steffen handle the last loads, while I return to work with diary and photos.

Our kitchen does not have any cooking items, but it does have a nice feature; Dinner appears hot and delicious every evening. It is Madonna, one of the local women, who cooks for us. I skip the chicken, but the local cheese and bread, along with home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers with a dash of mayonnaise, make up a tasty meal.

17/9 As we saw in the capital, Georgians are slow starters. On the other hand, they do work until real late. That give me a chance to catch up with my banking and other accountings, before me meet in.
The entire day is spend driving around to the different brigades, making sure everything is all right, and sealing their filled bags.

One young man, working alone is way out of the area, he thought was signed to. He had been picking for quite some time, and the ground is covered in cones. Unfortunately, we do not harvest here, and the cones have to be abandon. I feel really sorry for him, but he should had paid better attention. Another brigade is experienced people, and it is astonishing to see, how it hails with cones in their area.

We grab a fast lunch at two, mainly because we were out of seals, and I had to return anyway. I take over the driving, and try to remember the trails and where the brigades are - although that changes. The group we missed yesterday have marked their trail, and despite that, I have a hard time recognising that as a trail: Overgrown, steep and rough, but is does lead to an area with rich trees.

While we work, there are time to enjoy the nature with all the migrating birds. Here are numerous predator birds, herons, willy-wagtails and bee-eaters. The tiger stripes cows fascinates me; could be fun turning up with one at the local Danish farm-show. Some wild pears look like some I loves as a child - but these are immensely sour!

At dusk, we head back to the barn to receive the cones. Each brigade's bags are weighted and places on the shelf of the drying barn. The last arrival late in the pitch darkness. We head home to find a lack of warm food. Apparently, Madonna is taking the Sunday off. As a compensation, we get a bottle of the local moonshine; cha-cha. It is strong!

One general and rather dominating factor in this line of work, is the resin. This sticky stuff is everywhere, and hard to get rite of - unless you use petrol. Another thing is the languish used. I speak Danish with Steffen, English with Shota, German with Levan, some Russian with some of the pickers and NOT Georgian with the rest. At least, they are real good at sign-languish, and we get along fine, probably because they have a lot of humour.

18/9 I get to fly solo, and I have four brigades, divided into two sectors. As I prepare bags and seals, I get to make a deep incision in my index finger. While I cut a thick string, the plastic Stanley knife give in, and I start bleeding. They treat me with both H2O2 and iodine, and as I keep bleeding, they try tobacco. I drive of dripping, just to avoid further treatment.

Despite I drive straight to the right places (to my big surprise), I fail to find the first three groups. Only the forth is in place, but here I loose the review mirror to a branch. I spend most of the day locating the rest of my men. It turns out; one group stayed home, as the boss' pig had died. Another had car-problems and Steffen had nicked the third group for his area. Never the less, he advises me to walk around, and shout for them all!

In a attempt to find the group with the dead pig, I get a long drive up the slope. It is ruined by the 6X6 trucks, puling dead stems out, and the melting-water. Quite nice to maintain/train my ability to drive in rough terrain. I might not find them, but here are some interesting flowers in the clearings, and I even find a young adder.

I head back to the village for lunch, and then I nick a brigade from Shota, and those with car-issues turns up. The afternoon is spend supervising my brigades and sealing their bags. I drive back to the barn a bit early, but the lack of men made the day a bit dull. I monitor the unloading and weighting of the filled cone-bags till nine o'clock, and head home for a well deserved meal, prepared by Madonna. I postponed the investigation of my finger till morning. I'm finishing work at a bit passed ten, leaving me with a feeling of missing something?   The work continues in Diary 2

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