By horse to Khevsureti

The village of Girevi, where road ends and a testing path starts
The village of Girevi, where road ends and a testing path starts

The idea first sprouted when I read a quick reference to a five-day walk through Georgia’s rugged border country next to Chechnya. I badly wanted to travel this route, perhaps on horseback, and savour the remote mountain-tops.

My initial attempt to organise this drew a blank. My guide book said the Tusheti visitor centre just outside Omalo could help set up guides and horses. Well, on the day I dropped by it couldn’t provide even a scrap of information.

As usual, a more serendipitous approach was needed. The day after we came back to Omalo from Dartlo, Rachel and I walked to Shenaqo, a sleepy village a few kilometres east on the other side of a forested canyon. We hiked along a track heavy with the scent of heat, dust and pine.

On our return to Omalo we repaired to a shop cum cafe. The owner, Eteri Markhvaidze, spoke Russian. Rachel also has good Russian and thanks to her we quickly had a conversation going on how I could do the trek. Eteri knew a man who could be my guide.

She took out her calculator and did the sums. I agreed to pay 50 lari (nearly $22) a day to the guide for six days of hire – a four-day ride to the destination, the village of Shatili, and the guide’s two-day ride back. On the same basis I hired two horses at 35 lari (about $15.20) per horse per day. I also hired a tent. The guide, a lean 18-year-old named Lasha Arshaulidze, joined us and said he could start the next day.

I bought food for the journey from Eteri – two kinds of bread, tinned fish, gherkins, cheese, Snickers bars and bottled water.

The next morning Rachel climbed on board a 4 x 4 on the first stage of her journey home and I met up with Lasha. He vaulted onto his horse with the agility of an Olympic gymnast. I had struggled onto mine with the nimbleness of a Chelsea pensioner and I felt a pang of jealousy.

On the Atsunta Pass with Luna
On the Atsunta Pass with Luna

I was on a nine-year-old chestnut mare of Caucasus stock named Luna. For the next four days she would be the most important being in my life. Lasha’s nameless mare was accompanied by a foal, so we were quite an expedition.

For the second time I covered the ground to Dartlo and on arrival had mild intimations of Groundhog Day – it was shearing day again. We passed Dartlo without stopping.

Lasha and I had agreed to communicate in Russian, since he had next to no English. But mid-afternoon he revealed his knowledge of one of the most important words in the English language. “Lunch,” he said. And so we lunched. This was our deepest exchange in English.

We rode past the villages of Chesho and Parsma before we reached Girevi, the literal end of the road and our halt for the night. Just beyond the village a Tushetian stone tower stood tall, giving gravitas to the place.

We slept in our tents and the Caucasus night was mild, warmer than Wales when I camped there in July.

Before we set out on day two I presented my passport at Girevi’s border police post, an establishment with its own hens. I received a permit to travel to Shatili and off we went, heading northwest into mountains empty of human settlement.

The path soon became challenging. It rose quickly and before I knew it we were hundreds of metres up a mountainside. To our left was a precipitous drop to the river below. The path was in poor condition, narrow and strewn with loose slivers of stone. Luna was proving herself to be a sure-footed steed, but I still had moments of terror just contemplating where I was and how dependent I was on my horse. One misstep by Luna and neither of us was likely to survive.

By way of welcome diversion we rode through the abandoned village of Chontio, with stone houses on either side now falling down. Deserted villages prompt questions. Why on earth did people build on this remote spot? What did they do in the evenings? Was the death of the village swift or lingering?

We were not always on horseback. On the most difficult sections we dismounted. Sometimes the path ran all the way down to the river, but the predominant story of the day was threading our way high above tumbling waters on the slenderest of paths.

We camped the night at the Kwachidi bivouac site on the valley floor. Here I could gauge how popular this route has become. There were seven tents with walkers by early evening and then 12 saddled horses rode in from the east with just four riders, Georgians apparently on a mission to pick up tourists or their gear.

Next morning I talked to one of the hikers, a young Englishman with a stout stick setting out to walk the path we had taken the previous day. He introduced himself as David Hirtenstein from Oxford and said that he was walking to India. He had set out from Italy in October 2013 and expected to reach India in a few years.

He was trying to travel without money. “So how does that work?” I asked. “I just don’t worry,” replied David, who has a blog at atasteofancientroutes.wordpress.com

On day three we climbed to the Atsunta Pass, 3,431 metres high. It was a hot, sticky ascent, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot, and the latter stages were through a lunar landscape of rocks and scree.

After the pass we had a steep scramble down by foot and soon we were back in a greener world. We rode on a mountainside covered with stumpy rhododendron bushes and a steep drop down to the right. I tried out David’s mantra – I just don’t worry.

Snow-capped Mount Tebulos on the Georgia-Chechnya border
Snow-capped Mount Tebulos on the Georgia-Chechnya border

We emerged onto a grassy plateau with 360-degree views of the Caucasus, with the snow-capped Mount Tebulos, part of the Chechnya border range, off to our right. Two hawks hovered just ahead of us and one after another dived for prey. I felt part of the landscape, completely at one with the world around me. At the same time it was the closest to heaven I have been on this earth.

We camped the night at the Khidotani police border post.

On the final morning I received my marching orders from Lasha. “One hour on foot,” he said. This sounded ominous and I braced for the worst. But in the event there were no yawning chasms this time, just a rather steep descent. We led our horses down through a lovely deciduous woodland with a variety of flowers, some overhanging the path.

We reached the valley bottom and were back in the land of jeep tracks and human settlement. We rode on a track following a stream and came to Khonischala, with neat vegetable patches and solar energy. It was the first village we had seen since leaving Girevi two days earlier.

As we rode through, three young women each with a tin bucket crossed the road in front of us. This kind of image is so sharp when you have been away from humankind.

The abandoned village of Mutso
The abandoned village of Mutso

A few kilometres further we came to Mutso, a deserted old village on a pinnacle of rock. I climbed up and gazed into a stone crypt where during outbreaks of plague the soon-to-be-dead came to live out their last days or hours. You can still see human bones inside. Georgians know that Mutso is no ordinary place and renovation work began here last year.

Inside are the bones of plague victims who died at Mutso
Inside are the bones of plague victims who died at Mutso

We rode on to more stone crypts with human remains set above a gorge at a place called Anatori. From here a Russian flag is visible a few hundred metres away. During these latest Caucasus travels I met the military attaché of an EU member state and he asserted that the flag was flying on Georgian soil.

In late afternoon, after riding about 90 km in all, we rounded a bend and there was Shatili, a magnificent collection of inter-linked stone towers built between the seventh and 13th centuries on a rocky hill. People moved out of them in the second half of the 20th century and most are now empty. A small new village has been built right next door, powered by electricity from a hydro plant on the Argun river.

Over a beer in the evening, Lasha told me that neither Luna nor his horse had ever travelled on the path to Shatili before. He was probably right not to have troubled me with that detail earlier.

Shatili is in the region called Khevsureti. According to Georgia’s official tourism literature, the men in Khevsureti wore chain mail armour and carried swords and shields right up to the 1930s. Georgia has certainly marched to its own drum!

A little book called Caucasian Paths: Khevsureti has provided me with more insights into the ways of old Khevsureti. It says that up to the middle of the 20th century the region had a sexual custom called stsorproba. A young unmarried couple were allowed to lie together during the night, but caresses below the waist were forbidden and a sword was placed between them. What is this Khevsur thing about swords?

During my visit to Shatili my one encounter with local culture was an outdoor concert of Khevsuretian music. On a stage in front of the old town, a four-woman group in traditional attire sang and played on string instruments and drums. The music had a strong emotional charge and often a tinge of sadness, but it was vibrant and good entertainment.

Shatili: our destination at horse ride's end
Shatili: our destination at horse ride’s end

I have now made three trips to the Great Caucasus range in northern Georgia. The learning at a personal level has been that this travelling has done me the world of good. I have breathed the pure air of the mountains, seen extraordinary places and had a sense of living – sometimes quite literally – on the edge. I feel alive to the tips of my fingers.

When I sit in a Tbilisi cafe, I feel blessed that I have seen what French friends would probably call la Géorgie profonde.

I have seen the great mountain ranges that separate Georgia from Russia and watched a Georgian border guard train his binoculars on the giant neighbour to the north. But paradoxically I have a stronger sense now of Georgia’s vulnerability. This watchfulness by the guard is little more than theatre. If the northern neighbours want to play rough they already have forces in South Ossetia, close to the very heartland of Georgia. They also have troops in Armenia to the south.

My crystal ball is dim. Right now things are calm and I have no hesitation in claiming that Omalo to Shatili is one of the great trails of the world. It would be nice, though, if somebody can get round to improving that path.

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The road to Dartlo

Alaverdi Monastery, taken by Rachel
Alaverdi cathedral,  taken by Rachel

One gap in my knowledge of Georgia was the whole northeast corner, bordering the Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya.

To explore this part of the Great Caucasus meant travelling on one of the worst roads anywhere, venturing beyond the modern world of tarmac, ATMs and Wifi, but that was part of the charm.

My daughter Rachel, newly graduated in history and Russian, flew out to Tbilisi to join me and we set off to the northeast to explore. First we stayed in the lowlands, dillying and dallying a while on the sun-soaked plains of Kakheti, an old kingdom and now Georgia’s prime region for wine-growing. The wine, the quiet country charm and some sublime medieval architecture ensure that both the dallying and the dillying in Kakheti are of the highest quality.

We used as our base the historic town of Telavi, one of Georgia’s most important medieval trade centres, and checked into a comfortable guesthouse with a garden and a spreading apricot tree.

Naturally we took in a winery but also saw the 11th century cathedral of Alaverdi, a tribute to the skills of Georgia’s medieval craftsmen. Fifty metres high, for nearly 1000 years Alaverdi was the highest church in the country. A beautiful building barely known in Western Europe, it has a beguiling simplicity and is bathed in light from 16 windows in the cupola.

One of the world's "most dangerous roads" - part of route to Omalo
One of the world’s “most dangerous roads” – part of route to Omalo

 

The adventure proper began after Telavi. The idea was to travel in a 4×4 up to the village of Omalo in the high remote region of Tusheti. The road to Omalo featured in the BBC’s television series World’s Most Dangerous Roads.

Our guesthouse landlady arranged a vehicle for Rachel and myself to travel with two Swiss sisters in their early twenties from Klosters. In these situations you do weigh up the driver and Levan, a middle-aged veteran of the road to Omalo, looked the business to me.

We headed north across the plain, straight for the hazy wall of mountain ahead of us that was the Caucasus. The landscape held both the greenery of orchards and vineyards and the parched quality of a particularly dry summer – the rivers had very little water flowing. By the roadside were bucketfuls of peaches for sale and a donkey pulled a cart laden with watermelons.

When the road started to climb the tarmac soon disappeared. Up close, the landscape still looked in places rather like a wall of mountain. There were moments when Levan had to switch on his windscreen wipers because water from roadside streams was falling onto the roof of the vehicle. That is a hint that the climb is steep.

At the Abano Pass, highest pass for vehicles in the Caucasus
At the Abano Pass, highest pass for vehicles in the Caucasus

 

 

We made it to the Abano Pass, at 2,850 metres the highest drivable pass in the Caucasus. Clouds swirled and patches of snow lay on the ground – most of the year this road is closed.

Four hours after leaving Telavi we pulled into Omalo, a scattered village with lower and upper parts on a broad, rising grassland topped by a medieval fortress. Built originally to protect local people from Mongol jnvaders, this fortress has benefited in recent years from the generosity of a Dutch couple who have taken the lead in restoring the towers that form the citadel.

This is Big Country, with wide mountain panoramas, pine forests and a powerful feeling of space and isolation. Most Tushetians – the people of Tusheti – head for other homes on the plains when the snow starts to fall in October and leave only a token population to stay in the mountain villages through the winter.

Our guesthouse in Omalo (in foreground on the right)
Our guesthouse in Omalo (in foreground on the right)

A supra with a political hue

We settled into one of Omalo’s guesthouses and entered a little world of holiday-makers who by chance had arrived from several countries to dine at the one table. We sat down for our evening meal with the Swiss sisters Laura and Lisia and a Georgian family living in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.

The evening meal turned into a supra, a Georgian meal with toasts proposed by a toastmaster called a tamada. And the supra turned into a political discussion which laid bare how concerned some Georgians are about their country’s future.

The father, a banker called Mamuka Kirvalidze, took it upon himself to be tamada. I had been told at my first supra in Georgia that the first toast was always to God. “Not so,” said Mamuka, adding that in Georgia’s southwestern region of Adjara the first toast was to peace.

“To peace,” he said and we all toasted. This might seem a very anodyne and innocent toast, but in today’s Georgia it can easily be construed as having geopolitical overtones. Georgia fought and

lost a war with Russia in 2008 and since then Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become increasingly aligned with Moscow.

The big political story out of Georgia this summer has been accusations by the government in Tbilisi that Russia has shifted border markers in South Ossetia to expand the territory. Local Georgian residents say the border markers have been moved more than one kilometre. Russia has denied moving the markers, but the whole issue of Russia’s future intentions in Georgia hangs uncomfortably over the country.

At our supra, the banker Mamuka was present with his wife, two daughters and teenage son Zurab. The toast to peace set a very clear tone and Zurab took on the role of ardent patriot, chafing at the bit to become a professional politician and protect his country from the Russians.

“No politics,” said father to son at one point. But the “elephant in the room” – Georgia’s future as a nation – was clearly out of its box and could not be put back in again so quickly.

One of the other toasts proposed by Mamuka was to freedom. “To freedom,” we said lustily and everyone knew exactly what the sub-text was here. It was a moving evening, focused on the deep concerns of a nation which has been invaded and brutalised so many times in its history.

To Dartlo

The next day I set out with Rachel and the Swiss sisters to walk north, deeper into Tusheti, to the village of Dartlo. We hiked on a jeep track over slopes forested with pine – Tusheti is a reminder of how beautiful a natural pine forest can be. It is a different thing entirely from a conifer plantation, with trees interspersed with rocks looking like the very essence of a Romantic painting.

Along the way we grazed on wild raspberries growing by the roadside. For the last stretch we walked along a deep valley where the two sides were utterly different – on our southern side of the river the slope was covered with trees while the other vast mountainside opposite us was bare, with shifting herds of sheep.

We walked into Dartlo after more than five hours on the road and the place came as a shock. I had been expecting a sleepy sort of place, but it had a buzz. It seemed to be saying: “OK, we’re pretty small now, but give us 10 years and we’ll be a South Caucasus resort of choice.”

Dartlo: quiet in this shot but on occasions it has a buzz
Dartlo: quiet in this shot but on occasions it has a buzz

What a mix of folk! There were Russian bikers, courting couples, French-speaking tourists and down by the river a summer camp of Georgian university students. In the evening they played frisbee and split logs for the fire. There was a holiday mood, just a few kilometres from Chechnya.

To add to the general feeling of activity it was shearing day and four Georgian men were busy with their electric shears and creating a great pile of wool.

You can have absolutely no idea what places are like until you hit the road.

Tbilisi mon amour

The cliff in the centre of Tbilisi
The cliff in the centre of Tbilisi
Tbilisi's Zoroastrian fire temple
Tbilisi’s Zoroastrian fire temple
Rustaveli Avenue
Rustaveli Avenue

 

A part of me doesn’t really want to spread word about Tbilisi at all. This place is the way the world’s cities used to be before the arrival of mass tourism – and I love it.

From the visitor’s point of view, the Georgian capital comes close to perfection; it’s beautiful, cheap and offers stimulating conversation. The streets are safe and the food is exquisite. What more could one possibly ask?

If one were determined to gripe, then the heat of high summer could be counted against it. As I write on August 3, BBC Weather says the maximum temperature today will be 39C – the same as Khartoum, which stands out in my memory as one very hot city.

The first thing that struck me when I saw Tbilisi was the dramatic topography, the cliff rising up sheer on the northern side of the Mtkvari river with a church and other buildings perched on top. I still find this view thrilling.

The other thing was the charm of the main boulevard, Rustaveli Avenue, with its plane trees soaring to the heavens, the well-dressed women and the lovely balconies of the houses, a feature in much of Tbilisi. So, a city that marries drama and elegance.

The topographical extravagance does not end with the cliff. If you wander past Tbilisi’s sulphur baths on the south side of the river you soon come to a canyon and a waterfall.  A serious waterfall in the middle of a national capital!

Then the land rises steeply to the Solalaki ridge on the southern side of the city, with the Mother Georgia (Kartvlis Deda) statue and the ancient Narikala fortress. On the other side of the ridge stretches the green expanse of the National Botanical Garden of Georgia,  all 161 hectares of it.

Scattered here and there are examples of ultra-modern architecture. Much of this, to my mind, does not blend with the rest of Tbilisi. The buildings seem to be there to polish Georgia’s credentials as part of modern Europe.

But it’s clear that in human terms Tbilisi is not a carbon copy of West European capitals. People here are ploughing their own furrow. For example, Tbilisi’s churches are full to bursting. When I went to the city’s Sioni cathedral it was packed with worshippers of all generations. The canny ones were outside seated on benches in the courtyard – more comfortable than standing inside.

The University of the Road

I like to call it the University of the Road – the knowledge one gains from others when on the move. Tbilisi has a particularly lively branch of this august institution.

One of my teachers is Yuri Millarson. The first time I met him in a Tbilisi hostel I learnt just the basics – he is from San Francisco and he’s named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. In later conversations I realised that Yuri lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the Caucasus like no one else I have ever met. His knowledge is extraordinary and his ideas on day trips unconventional.

One evening he told me that the next day he hoped to go to the Pankisi Gorge in eastern Georgia to brush up on his Chechen grammar with the Kists. The trip didn’t happen in fact, but the conversation improved my knowledge of the ethnic mosaic of Georgia. The Kists trace their origins to the Chechens of the North Caucasus.

Yuri, who is 43, hangs out some of the time with Georgian bikers. He describes himself as an anarchist and he has one very big idea. He wants to foster a sense of the cultural unity of the Caucasus, north and south, so that eventually the peoples of the region can move towards some kind of political union.

So how did a Californian come to be passionate about the Caucasus? “Well, when I was a child I saw Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu,” said Yuri. “It had Tsintskaro playing in it, a very old Georgian vocal polyphonic song and that was my first introduction to the music of the Caucasus actually….As I was growing up as a child the Caucasus was this kind of strange, mythical place.”

“And then there was this thing about my grandmother,” added Yuri, “my grandmother who was living on the Black Sea coast when she was a little child with her mother.” He said the draw of the Caucasus was like going back into an ancestral past, like “a 1000-year-old smell”.

Yuri said that for more than 20 years he had been thinking about the unification of the Caucasus, about breaking down what he called “the manufactured distance” between people on different sides of political borders.

“Georgians know very little about Chechens, for example, even though they are direct border neighbours,” said Yuri. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Chechens have fought two independence wars against Russia but are still part of the Russian Federation.

I asked him how could an outsider from California bring change to the Caucasus. His answer was quick and simple. “You need some different thinking, some outside thinking.”

Immediately after my first conversation with Yuri about Caucasus unity, I met two delightful young Russians from the North Caucasus, a brother and sister in their 20s. Our paths crossed briefly in a restaurant and we arranged to meet again the next day. They were Russian citizens of ethnic Armenian stock, visiting family in Tbilisi. They seemed almost to be embodying Yuri’s idea of Caucasus unity.

We ate ice cream and chatted for hours about life, the universe and everything. He was a lawyer, she was a teacher of English. Sometimes you hear the view in the West that Russians are brainwashed by their media into believing what their government wants them to believe.

The brother and sister told me, however, that they had completely stopped watching Russian television. Her favourite viewing was Downton Abbey, not renowned for its Kremlin propaganda.

A few highlights

Memories of a few excursions and hangouts in Tbilisi will stay with me. At the weekend Yuri and I set off to visit the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple. Our taxi driver repeatedly got lost and eventually dropped us somewhere close. We asked several Georgians to direct us to the spot but just got blank looks. Eventually a foreign tourist showed us the way.

Perhaps it was the summer heat, but it then took us half an hour to get in. We finally knocked on the right door and a man opened up what looked like a private home. He pointed languidly to the temple entrance and disappeared.

The temple, called the Ateshgah, is a cuboid brick structure in the south of the city below the Mother Georgia statue and just to the east of the Zemo Betlemi church. It is without windows and essentially featureless. A sign outside says it was probably built between the fifth and seventh centuries, when Zoroastrianism was spreading in Georgia.

The point in going was not to savour architectural greatness, but to get a sense of contact with a very distant past. Zoroaster,  the religion’s founder,  lived in the first or second millennium BC in ancient Iran and developed a monotheistic religion with concepts of heaven and hell. The religion still exists, mainly in India.

In an utterly different vein, one day back in May I dropped into Betsy’s Hotel, a favourite haunt of the British. An Englishman stood at one end of the bar, with beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. He held forth on how best to prepare camel for the table. I caught snippets.

“Has to be a young camel…Bury for seven hours.” He delivered his culinary tips with such poise and assurance that it was easy to believe the English were forever dining off camel, before moving on to the apple and blackberry crumble and the port.

My most frequent haunt has been Kala in Old Tbilisi. There I listen to an old-timer with twinkling eyes play the drums with all the mellow tunefulness of advancing years, while two younger musicians accompany him on cello and piano.

Occasionally female vocalists put in an appearance, seated precariously on a high stool (one at a time, of course). Kala also does a great mint-flavoured lemonade, which hits the spot nicely in this heat.