Mesolithic Drawings and Motorcycles
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
The Tsalka region is located about an hour's drive outside Tbilisi. Today it is a farming community set in an impressive expanse of rolling hills framed by the shadows of tall mountains in the distance. There is a harsh beauty to this land that is only tamed by the planted forests installed by the soviet empire in an attempt to make the region more friendly to the growing community. This wouldn't be the only ecological change that the soviets would make.
In 1946 a damn would be constructed in a deep and narrow ravine, resulting in a massive 33.7 square kilometer reservoir, with a max depth of 25 meters. The creation of this artificial lake would submerge two entire towns. Yet, even over 60 years later, a church top can still be seen when the water level is low.
Besides the recent manmade changes, there are known to be 100s of early human drawings on a rocky cliff not far from the center of the main town Tsalkia.
As of writing this, there is still no protection for this primitive artwork, which is said to be from the Mesolithic age. There are no tourist hospitalities for this landmark or even a proper path. You simply have to find them yourself.
For some time now, I had wanted to join my friend Justina on a travel excursion. She works as a travel guide here in Georgia and knows just about every region imaginable in this country. When she isn't taking groups of tourists or ex-pats on hikes and adventures around beautiful sightseeing spots, she is out looking to find new locations to add to her list of destinations. I was lucky to have the opportunity to join her on what one may call a reconnaissance mission.
We decided to take my motorcycle because Justina said, "It looks like a fun road."
This is all I need to hear to convince me to start up my aging Ducati, which may have some extra "character" these days from her many adventures but would make for an agile form of transportation suitable for the winding mountain roads that we would need to take.
Like every summer in Tbilisi, the heat had become too much to bear, and I was happy to be getting out of the concrete jungle. Despite being further south, Tsalka is at a higher altitude and is called the Siberia of Georgia for a good reason; it's dramatically colder.
I could feel the drop in temperature as we crossed over the first of several mountains. Unfortunately, I also noticed that we were low on fuel around the same time. Justina pulled out her phone and showed me the screen over my shoulder.
"30 minutes," I read out loud. "We should be fine."
Despite being confident we could reach the next gas station, I decided it would be best to slow the pace to consume the least amount of gas possible. Though the pace was slower, the road still was delightful with its seemingly endless curves and awestriking surrounding scenery.
We were curving up a hill when the engine spluttered, and there was a dramatic loss of power.
"Where's that gas station?" I yelled through my helmet.
"I never saw it," Justina replied.
Fortunately, we had passed a restaurant only a kilometer ago, and it was downhill. We coasted the bike back to the small mountainside bbq joint and immediately began to ask if anyone knew where the nearest gas station was and if they could take us there. We weren't having good luck, so one of the staff at the restaurant brought us a length of rubber hose.
"To siphon?" I asked.
"The guy didn't seem to know that word but gave me a thumbs up as it appeared that I understood the concept."
Justina began to use her knowledge of Russian to explain our situation to different drivers at the restaurant. One of them, a fellow tour guide, told her it would be alright to take some of his gasoline.
The man popped open the small fuel hatch on his large white van. I eyed the length of hose, which seemed like it should reach far enough into the tank. But it wasn't the length that was the problem; it was the girth. The piece of hose had gotten stuck in the filler, and it seemed there was no way to get it back out. Several people gathered around. I started to feel really bad that the only person willing to help was delayed and had a red rubber tube stuck in the side of his van. I and several others tried everything we could to get it unstuck. Eventually, the owner walked up and yanked the tube out, which left a broken piece in the filler. He then shrugged his shoulders and pushed the broken bit right down into the gas tank.
"you aren't concerned about that?" I asked.
He waved me off with his hand, but Justina handed him a contact card anyway, should there be complications.
I felt pretty foolish after the encounter, and the two of us stood there for several moments, watching the van drive down the mountain road. I knew we would figure out a way to get back on the road, but I think we both felt terrible about potentially fucking up a kind person's car.
"Where are you two from?" A voice from behind us asked.
We turned to see three older men sitting at a table.
"Lithuania," replied Justina.
"The US," I chimed in.
The men waved us over to the table.
"I can take you to the nearest gas station, stated one of the men."
"Oh my God, thank you so much."
"But first, please sit and have something to eat with us."
We fell into the empty chairs across from the men.
"You are driving, so you can drink lemonade," said the first man, in a thick Georgian accent, as he poured my glass.
"Are you also on holiday?" I asked.
"Yes, I am showing my colleagues where I am from. They are from Austria."
He tried to explain what it is that they do, but the language barrier was too strong. Justina jumped in with her Russian, which all three men understood. We sat and ate for over an hour, sharing stories and doing our best to translate each other's sentences.
As the food on the table dwindled, we realized it was about time to get going. Alex, our new Georgian friend, turned to me.
"Shall we go and get some petrol?"
"I guess so."
The three of us got up from the table, and his two Austrian friends stayed behind. We packed into his car, an early 2000s ford escape in surprisingly good condition. The restaurant staff had given us a large empty water bottle to fill up with.
Alex drove similarly to most natives who had grown up in the country, very fast and with heaps of confidence. It was clear that he had gone this road many times. To me, it's similar to watching a master at work. He fiddled with the CD changer for a minute before a blues song came on; Motorcycle Blues by Michael Katon. Then, he turned towards me and gave me a big toothy grin.
We got to the gas station in less than 10 minutes. Initially, I had been wondering how the hell we had missed a gas station, but upon seeing the dilapidated structure, I completely understood why. If not for the large old military pump truck filling up the underground fuel tank, I would have thought that this place had been out of commission since the 1980s.
An older man was standing by the pump. Justina walked up and talked to him.
"They're just now getting resupplied." She explained. "Apparently, they have been out all day."
"Well, I guess we wouldn't have been able to get gas even if we had seen this place."
We waited for the sediment to settle and then handed our 5-liter water bottle to the old man to fill up.
We noticed an old-fashioned jerry can sitting on the ground.
"Those are so cool." I mentioned. "I should get one to strap to the side of the bike. Do you think it's original German?"
"I think it is a cheap soviet knockoff," Said Alex. "I had one; turned it into a cupboard."
He pulled out his phone and swiped through some pictures until he found one of the modified jerry can. It was a clever idea for a hiding place in one's garage.
"Nice workshop," I stated, seeing the photo's background.
"I'm making a lot of different things there," Alex said.
"You have more pictures?"
He went through several albums showing different projects. There were beautiful leather chairs made with aircraft parts, resin-filled tables, and light fixtures made from strange bits and bobs, all welded together. It was an abundance of beautiful design.
"Man, I want to come out and see that sometime."
"Yes, Me too!" exclaimed Justina, who was equally transfixed by the photos.
"Any time you like, and we will drink lots and lots of wine," said Alex.
We drove back to the Ducati at the same breakneck speed while blasting the Beatles album, A Hard Days Night.
Alex would look at me in a bemused fashion to see me singing along at the top of my lungs. But, as odd as it may be to be belting out "Can't Buy Me Love" with a stranger on a mountain road, it wasn't going to stop me. We were back on the trail to a good trip, and Alex wasn't even a stranger; he felt more like a great old friend.
We arrived at the restaurant, and Alex handed each a business card. Once we were fuelled up, it was time to get moving. I saw Justina sharing some words with Alex and others who had helped before during the fuel hose debacle. I couldn't understand the Russian words, but I could tell that the words spoken were beautiful and full of heart. Justina came back over to the bike.
"Lets go," she said, "before I start to cry. These people are just so lovely and kind."
There is nothing on earth quite like true Georgian hospitality.
After a sensationally windy drive, we finally arrived in Tsalka. The air seemed even colder though the town is located below the mountain road that leads to it. I'm not sure I'll ever understand why the geography here makes for such a cold climate, but it was fascinating and highly welcomed.
We weren't immediately hungry, but we were both looking forward to trying the unique cuisine for which Tsalka is famous. First, we made our way to the hotel to check in.
It was a bland and brutish structure that could have passed for a hospital in a horror film: almost exceedingly soviet in its appearance, but it was part of its charm. It was also located right on the shoreline of the big beautiful lake.
Nothing had been prepared yet, so we waited in the common area for a while. There was a pool next door that was primarily unfilled, but that hadn't stopped two local children from coming out to splash around in it.
"I love it," I mused while looking out the window at the kids. "Rember when you were a kid and were happy to swim anywhere?"
"I'm not sure I've changed, Justina replied. "I'll be getting up in the morning for a cold plunge in the lake."
I thought about the fact that the lake is fed by glaciers. Justina had just spent the last winter living above the arctic circle. Polar bear plunges had become a way of life for her, but I decided I should try it.
"Wake me up when you go in the morning."
The next morning felt a lot colder than I had anticipated. In addition, the wind was blowing hard, stirring up white caps across the lake. I was glad I had told Justina the day before that I wanted to go. Otherwise, I would possibly bail at this point.
"Hey! Are you coming?"
I grabbed my towel and headed out of the room. We walked along the long hospital-looking corridor and down the steps. Something about this place also reminded me of how an old school smelled.
As we made our way down to the edge
of the lake, I could see that a long metal dock had been placed in the water. It was essentially a long walkway, slowly sinking down into the water under the waves. There was no other safe place to simply jump in. It was a long and cold walk out into the water. The dock was covered in very slippery algae, forcing one to grab the railing with all their might so that the waves wouldn't cause you to lose footing. However, a strange thing happened when I got all the way in. The water was super cold, but somehow the air felt even colder. For a few minutes, I was trapped in the middle of the decision to stay in or get out, but eventually, I stood up out of the water and made the awkward walk back up the dock. We had gone in turns due to the less than ideal swimming conditions. Also, this allowed the other person to get that perfect Instagram shot of getting into the water.
Once we were finally back on the lawn and dry, we made the cold trip back to the hotel. The hotel owners were standing in the lobby, ready to ask us how cold the water was. We headed back up to change and grab our helmets. Today we were going out to see the ancient carvings.
We had little information about where the site was, but there was a marking on google maps somewhere off the side of the road that vaguely indicated their location.
A small farmhouse lay by the side of the road. We pulled off the street and parked at the edge of the driveway. The farmer was out in front of the house wearing a white wide-brimmed hat and motioned us to come further down the driveway.
We shut off the bike in front of the house. The man seemed rather cheerful and seemed to know why we were there.
"Drawings?" I asked.
He smiled and nodded his head, and pointed out into the distance. Out beyond the reach of his hand was a massive rolling field, split by a rocky ravine. On one side of the river was a long rocky cliff face. It was there we assumed we would find the drawings.
As we marched off towards the cliff, I couldn't get the man's smile out of my head. In this town, people wore a distinctly different face than the inhabitants of Tbilisi. You see it in the eyes, mainly in the elderly; it's not actually sad, but something akin to worry. I've heard it described as the post soviet stare. It's a look only worn by someone who has seen the world completely change before their eyes. I theorized it was the farm life that kept things from changing too fast here.
We passed along the rocky natural wall. Then, we began to see other, newer pictures, accompanied mainly by Cyrillic letters.
"1935," I muttered out loud. "Who do you think wrote that?" I asked.
"It says right above it," Justina pointed out. "It was the soviet army."
We saw many fantastic rock formations and even discovered a rather deep cave, but we were starting to lose hope as a chunk of the day passed, and we continued to only find graffiti and modern etchings here and there on the rocks.
Finally, however, I looked up at some point and saw an image clearly depicting a camel. It is one of the most famous depictions that one can find on these rocks. I smiled widely.
"They're all here," I pointed out as we gazed at the scene of figures with bows and arrows and numerous types of animals.
The graffiti on the wall next to the cave painting from thousands of years ago nearly made me laugh over the oddity of our ever-lasting need to proclaim our presence. But, much like the words I write, it is all simply a cry out into the void screaming, I exist. These etchings, a relic of a past voice, only to be covered by future scribbles, more pictures, more images, more content, only to be overwritten again by more voices; learning, circling, and repeating but ever marching on as time follows closely behind with a broom, carefully whisking away our footsteps.
Our last stop for the day was a restaurant that had been here for a long time. It was owned by one of the greek families still living here and boasted of the best food in the region. We had looked for it the night prior but had not known that they had settled into a new location due to the original undergoing some repairs and refreshing. A younger member of the family sat us down at a table. Across the room, we spotted a girl who also had a motorcycle helmet on the table. We waved, and she waved back before getting up and walking over to us.
"Solo ride?" I asked.
"Nope, just waiting on the guys," she replied. "I give motorcycle tours. Got a group of 9 dudes from both the US and Australia."
In a moment, they began to funnel into the restaurant.
Before long, we were talking and sharing stories of places we had traveled to in this tiny country. It seemed like a really cool job to me.
"You two should swap contact info," I said to Justina.
After a fantastic feast of hybrid Greek/Georgian food, we said our goodbyes and got on the road. Not wanting to take any chances, we stopped at the local gas station before heading out of town. While we were filling up, we saw the group of riders pass by, revving and honking as they made their way out of the city.
A surprisingly short distance down the road, we caught up with part of the group. All of whom were riding purpose-built touring bikes. BMWs, KTMs and a Husqavarna. It occurred to me that we must be going relatively fast to catch them, and given that we were two people on a much older bike, perhaps I was being too reckless, or maybe I was starting to feel more local. I smiled, thinking about this until I noticed I no longer had a working rear brake.
"Why are you pulling over?" Justina asked loudly.
"Ehh, You'll see,"