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.

What am I doing in the Caucasus?

Torrential rains hit Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, in mid-June

“Stephen, what the hell are you doing in the Caucasus?” spluttered a German friend in a message back in the spring.

I was in fact about to set out on my travels when this message landed and I kept my answer simple: “Look at photos of Georgia. The place is utterly stunning.”

Having spent some six weeks in Georgia I have seen with my own eyes that the country is indeed prodigiously beautiful. This wonderful land of mountains and mystery drew me and continues to draw me.

I have spent the last month back in Britain to attend my daughters’ graduation ceremonies, to see family and friends and to reflect on my travels so far. I can now give a fuller account of what the hell I am doing in the Caucasus! It is about more than the physical beauty of the land, though that is an important part of it.

At one level, I am on a Boys’ Own adventure and one old friend suggested that the occasional mishap would be a good idea. I’ll see what I can do! The trip shouldn’t be too cosy and predictable.

The journey is also unfolding on the level of ideas, thoughts about the contemporary world and lessons to be learned from the areas that I am visiting.

I have experienced Georgia as a country where the pace of life is relaxed, where traditions of good food and wine and hospitality are very much alive and where the natural world is rich and exuberant. I had the Georgians down as bons viveurs who knew how to enjoy themselves while looking after their environment much better than most.

Yesterday I had a shock. I checked to see where Georgia stands in the World Happiness Report, an annual study launched in 2012 which attempts to say something sensible about levels of well-being in different countries.

Georgia is in 130th position, below the Palestinian Territories, Ukraine, Iraq, Congo (Kinshasa), Liberia and Zimbabwe. None of these is exactly an exemplar of the good life. These countries also fare better than Georgia’s neighbour Armenia, which is 127th. The list encompasses 158 countries in all.

Either I have been taking a hopelessly romantic, wrong-headed view of Georgia or the “science of happiness” is spewing out bilge.

I am about to go back to Georgia and will give myself the task of digging deeper and trying to find out how people perceive their lives. What’s working for them, what’s not? Are the peoples of the South Caucasus really some of the most miserable folk on the planet or is this a heinous libel?

After the rains, many Georgians turned out to clean up the city
After the rains, many Georgians turned out to clean up the city

World Themes

Every individual journey unfolds against a backdrop of events in the world as a whole. In a complex global society we do our own sense-making with help from others. My sense of what is going on internationally informs my writing and my idea of why I am in the Caucasus.

So, here are two authors who have influenced my thinking during my break from travels.

Yuval Noah Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which is a stimulating gallop through world history. Harari, an historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that the Industrial Revolution brought about “the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.”

There have been strong stirrings of revolt against the central role of the market for some time, but I sense that now there is a groundswell which will bring big changes.

The other author is Pope Francis, who in June published in eight languages an encyclical entitled Laudato Si’, (Praise Be to You), on care of the environment.

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” writes the pope, who is strongly critical of the current importance of the market in our culture.

The encyclical is a talking point with, inevitably, enthusiastic supporters and critics. The pope is stirring things up nicely. Thank you Your Holiness.

To relate all of this back to Georgia, when I look at the country with an outsider’s eye I see an international leader. This country is not a pile of filth. Nearly 40 percent of its land is still covered with forest and it can boast of bears, wolves, lynxes, jackals and eagles, just some examples of its gloriously rich fauna.

This part of the world has also retained the pre-capitalist values identified by Harari in more convincing fashion than, say, Britain. In Georgia, the family has most emphatically not collapsed. Extended families live together in one house and in the countryside practically no one lives alone. The local community, while under strain in the villages because of the universal phenomenon of the flight to the cities, is still very real, with neighbours dropping in to help one another with tasks such as planting potatoes.

I was in Tbilisi in mid-June when a torrential downpour hit the Georgian capital, causing the deaths of at least 20 people and enabling wild animals, including a hippopotamus and a white tiger, to escape from the zoo. Many people took part in the clean-up and I certainly picked up a sense of community, of social solidarity.

So why is Georgia in 130th position in the World Happiness Report?

Watch this space for my attempts to give an answer, whilst also coping with the occasional mishap, delving into history and describing the views.

Select Bibilography

Harari, Yuval Norah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London 2014

Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, Vatican 2015

The 2015 World Happiness Report is at http://www.worldhappinessreport

See also article The end of capitalism has begun by Paul Mason, Economics Editor of Channel 4 News in The Guardian of 17 July 2015.

In the Caucasus at last

The view to the west when I step out of my guesthouse in Lenjeri
The view to the west when I step out of my guesthouse in Lenjeri

I try to rein in the superlatives, but never in all my days have I been anywhere lovelier than the Caucasus in spring.

Being here is an experience that ripples right through me, like opening up to a new love.

I am staying in a village called Lenjeri in the Georgian region of Svaneti, known beyond its borders for its stunning landscapes, ancient culture and living traditions of music and dance.

Let me give some geographical context. The border with Russia is 12 kilometres to the north of Lenjeri. Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, is about 40 kilometres northwest of me and Sochi, the Russian resort which hosted the last Winter Olympics, some 250 kilometres to the west on the Black Sea coast.

The view to the east from the village of Lenjeri

When I walk out of my guesthouse, the view over to the west is to die for – spring flowers, trees in blossom and the heights of the Labskaldi Range covered in snow. To the north and to the east are the snowy peaks that form the border with Russia.

Several times now I have walked from my guesthouse along the road to Mestia, a town about 40 minutes by foot to the east. I feel familiar now with the road’s sights and sounds. Every day there are men ploughing the rich earth with oxen, a team of two animals for one plough. Pigs usually scavenge by the roadside. Up on the wooded slopes towards Russia, I often hear a cuckoo sing.

I see the distinctive Svan stone towers built over the centuries to protect villagers from attack. The culture of Svaneti is rich and the people here have their own unwritten language, related to but distinct from Georgian.

The region reminds me a little of Transylvania, in the sense that it is another example of a peasant society producing much of its own food and another great feast for the eye.

Men ploughing with oxen, seen from the road from Lenjeri to Mestia
Men ploughing with oxen, seen from the road from Lenjeri to Mestia

In case you decide to come to Svaneti, let me give you the lowdown on how to get here.

Take the centre of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, as the starting point. From Freedom Square, ride the metro out four stops to Samgori. An announcer tells you in English which stop is coming up next. (This is useful. Bear in mind that Georgian has its own beautiful but daunting alphabet. Not that the metro bothers very much with prominent signage in any language.)

Leaving Samgori station, emerge onto the road and turn right. After about 100 metres there is a small area where a few minibuses are usually parked and a sign in the English alphabet says Mestia.

With the help of the tourist information office, I had learned that a vehicle was due to set out for Mestia at 7 a.m. The office had booked me a seat. The fare for the eight-hour journey is 30 lari. (Current tourist rates are about 3.5 lari to the pound, 2.6 to the euro and 2.3 to the U.S. dollar.)

The vehicle turns out to be a Nissan Serena SUV. For the first hour we do the rounds in Tbilisi, picking up passengers. Eventually we set out with Giorgi at the wheel, plus five adults, two children and luggage. As the solitary foreigner, I get the seat of honour in the front.

The journey takes us past Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, where the Caucasus are already in view.

We continue to Zugdidi, not far inland from the Black Sea. To the Anglo-Saxon ear, this name does not sound promising, but Zugdidi turns out to be a fetching town with fountains, gardens and views of the snow-capped ranges to the north. There’s a moral here somewhere.

After Zugdidi we start to climb and soon Giorgi is negotiating a serious mountain road. For lunch we stop at a roadside restaurant in the mountains. Driver and passengers sit at one table. Tasty Georgian fare appears and we all tuck in. Giorgi refuses to let me make any financial contribution to lunch and we press on.

I have a contact in Svaneti, the friend of a friend of an old Reuters pal. His name is Vakhtang Pilpani. Both he and his father are noted musicians in Svaneti and he runs a guesthouse.

Giorgi calls him on his mobile and says that we have reached his village, Lenjeri. Giorgi has barely finished the call when we stop in front of a vehicle parked in the road. It is Vakhtang.

With black pigs scampering at our feet – there are always animals on Georgian roads – we transfer my luggage to Vakhtang’s vehicle. Almost immediately Vakhtang delivers a short discourse on the English language.

“There are three kinds of English,” he tells me. “There is American English, there is British English and there is Svanetian English. I am a specialist in Svanetian English.”

I discover that English is actually Vakhtang’s fourth language after Svan, Georgian and Russian.

When I tell him that I have some Russian he is visibly relieved.

I have been chilling out in Vakhtang’s comfortable home, just drinking the place in. I love the names of the mountains. Ushba, Tetnuldi, Shkhara, Akhalgazrdoba, Chkhunderi, Mudurbani. They are such appropriately hard names for mountains made of granite and shale.

When I hear a Svan speak the name of Ushba or Shkhara I feel I am listening to a character straight out of the pages of Tolkien. Some of that granite has surely entered Svaneti’s DNA – these people are tough. They are also skilled musicians, producing deep, sonorous sounds that go back so far in the human story.

Vakhtang, seated in front, leads a music group singing 4000-year-old songs
Vakhtang, seated in front, leads a music group singing 4000-year-old songs

Svan music is known internationally and Vakhtang tells me that his father, Eptime Islam Pilpani, now 81, has been to Paris three times to perform as a musician.

I am lucky enough to hear Vakhtang and his music group play for some German tourists. Vakhtang tells them that several of the songs the group is singing date back 4000 years.

The evening’s entertainment includes a virtuoso linguistic performance. The tourist group leader, a young Svanetian woman, translates all of Vakhtang’s comments, spoken in the Svan language, into German. As she tells me: “Es ist nicht einfach.” Not easy at all, I can imagine, but this tour guide, Tea Totogashvili, surely has one of the world’s ultimate niche products.

To see more of Svaneti I will be travelling by foot. Mestia is the end of the road for all motorised transport except jeeps. I hope to set out soon with a trusty guide.