In two minds about Abkhazia

A peace gesture from Georgia on the Abkhaz border
A peace gesture from Georgia on the Abkhaz border
Sokhumi's seafront promenade by night
Sokhumi’s seafront promenade by night

The world, it seems, is in two minds about the Black Sea statelet of Abkhazia at the western end of Georgia.

For Russians, it is a subtropical holiday paradise and they go there literally by the million every year to frolic by the sea. For the governments of the West, on the other hand, it is a dangerous no-go zone and they advise their citizens not to set foot in these badlands.

In 2015 I went three times to the South Caucasus and made it to quite a few places, but back home in Wales it gnawed at me that I had not set foot in Abkhazia. This felt like a serious omission and I decided to find out who is right about Abkhazia – the Russians or the West.

In international law this lush, beautiful region is part of Georgia, but covert Russian forces played their part in wresting it from Georgia in a war fought by Abkhaz nationalists in the early 1990s. Abkhazia claims to be an independent state, but only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu recognise it as such. In practice it is a small extension of Russia, which has a land border on its western edge. Abkhazia’s currency is the Russian rouble.

In late June, just a few days after Britain’s European Union referendum, I set off for Georgia. It was a shambolic departure. When I should have been packing, I was writing to my Member of Parliament urging a new referendum. I have never had such a chaotic start to a journey, but that vote did rather upend my emotions.

I flew from Bristol via Warsaw to Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi, carrying with me an e-mail from Abkhazia’s foreign ministry promising a visa on arrival in the Abkhaz capital. I arrived at Kutaisi airport in wet, grey weather, but out on the highway in a taxi I knew that I was in Georgia. Cowherds sheltering under umbrellas padded along with their cattle on the road from Zugdidi. Georgia wouldn’t be Georgia without its omnipresent livestock. The taxi driver told me that he had lost his left thumb in the Abkhazia war, which suddenly felt more real.

I stayed two nights in the town of Zugdidi for some gentle acclimatisation and then headed in a taxi to the nearby border. This must surely be one of the few official border crossings left in the world where most of the travellers are either on foot or in horse-drawn taxis, covered wagons which ply their trade between the Georgian and Abkhaz border posts.

There is another unusual touch. On the left side of the road, after the Georgian passport control and before the bridge over the Enguri river which marks the border, stands the statue of a black revolver pointing towards Abkhazia. But the barrel of the gun is twisted upwards and this actually points at the sky. While the intention, I suppose, is noble, the statue just seems odd on this rather quiet stretch of road.

The Enguri river was in a sense familiar territory. A year earlier I had walked to its source in Svaneti, at the Shkhara glacier, and now I was close to the end of its journey.

Over on the Abkhaz side of the river I came to a solitary passport officer sitting in a basic shelter. He was a jovial fellow who clearly enjoyed some conversation to help pass the time. He addressed me in Russian, with a certain lightness in his tone. “So, what are you? Tourist, journalist, extremist or terrorist?” Given this menu of options I chose tourist. I also offered the information that I was Welsh since the European soccer championships were on and the world had finally heard of Wales, partly on account of its football maestro Gareth Bale. My new friend, when not flirting with a passing woman, then proceeded to show great interest in matters Celtic and spoke at length about Robert Louis Stevenson and the Picts. I couldn’t follow all he said, but I did reflect that travellers entering Britain would probably not be treated to such literary conversation at passport control.

We said farewell on the best of terms and his parting words to me were “Welsh extremist”. Now the author Ned Thomas, many years ago, wrote a book with this title. I can’t imagine that my Abkhaz passport officer knew this, but it is strange how he chose these words.

From the border I took another taxi to the nearby town of Gali which is still largely inhabited by ethnic Georgians. The taxi driver even accepted payment in Georgian lari. My guide book described Gali as sadly dilapidated — a result of war damage –but the town had commerce and looked in better shape than I had been expecting.

By bus I carried on to Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia and a seaside resort of great charm which is finding its feet again after the destruction of civil war.

Luckily the website booking.com marches on into disputed territories like Abkhazia and I made my way to a pre-booked guesthouse, run by a woman of Armenian extraction, Anaida.

Her husband Sarkis, a self-employed mechanic also of Armenian origin whose forebears fled to these shores after the Genocide, was sitting on a bench in the front yard, pottering with bits of this and that. We fell into conversation. Within less than 10 minutes he asked me: “Why don’t the English like Russia?” I wanted to say “Give me a break, I have only just walked through your door!” Instead I said something to the effect that Russia’s chequered history, with chapters like the Stalinist purges, induced a certain caution in the English where Russia was concerned.

This prompted Sarkis to embark on a list of America’s misdeeds over the decades, but happily we did not dwell on geopolitics for long. Still, it was a swift lesson for me that having crossed the Enguri river I was now in a part of the world where the Kremlin’s world view prevailed. Sarkis’s tone was not one of raw hostility, but nor did it feel like an invitation to amicable open-minded debate on the state of the world.

Partly, I think, the question was simple curiosity on Sarkis’s part – in the normal way of things he wouldn’t meet many of my compatriots. I spent 16 days in Abkhazia and did not meet a single person from anywhere west of St. Petersburg.

Sokhumi was badly damaged in the Abkhaz war but now feels quite prosperous, feeding off a buoyant tourist trade from Russia. Orange and white trolley buses trundle through its streets giving an air of municipal normality and Russian holiday makers throng the seafront promenade lined with oleander bushes. It feels like a good-tempered resort of the old-fashioned kind. During the day a little train takes children for rides along the promenade and in the evening couples come out and dance. Groups set up tables on the stony beach and drink. Young boys shout “Garyachaya cuckoorooza” which to my ear is more melodious than “Hot sweet corn”. I can imagine spending a few happy days shouting “Garyachaya cuckoorooza” on the Sokhumi seafront, but the idea of yelling out the English equivalent has no appeal whatsoever.

Occasionally the heavens open and the seaside idyll is temporarily suspended. Once I spent nearly an hour on the seafront huddled inside a popcorn vendor’s stall waiting for a downpour to subside.

I arrived in Abkhazia without any firm ideas on itinerary but I didn’t want to try anything too daring. I settled on a plan of walking from Sokhumi to Gagra, another popular seaside resort about 80 kilometres away towards the Russian border.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
The golden domes of Novy Afon monastery
The golden domes of Novy Afon monastery

I set out on a bright sunny morning. I bought a peaked cap and an umbrella in Sokhumi’s excellent central bazaar and just walked down to the promenade and turned right. There were bathers in the sea, people on the beach and patches of snow on the Caucasus peaks. I love moments like this, when you simply walk out in fine weather into the unknown.

At the western end of Sokhumi I was reminded of the region’s difficult modern history. I came across the first war memorial of my walk – I was to see many others.

“Eternal glory to the combatants of the Sukhumi battalion who fell in the battles for the motherland!” The memorial gave the names of 36 fighters, one dead in 1992, the others in 1993. Behind were the ruins of a five-storey red brick building partly covered in vegetation. Presumably one of the battles for the motherland had taken place right here.

The first day of my Abkhazia walk, July 6, was also the day that Britain published its long-awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq war, so the human propensity for slaughter was hard to shift from my thoughts.

One of the outcomes of the Abkhaz war was the mass deportation of Georgians from the region. Before the war about half of the population of Abkhazia was Georgian and they greatly outnumbered the Abkhaz. In the political and economic tumult surrounding the end of the Soviet Union, relations between the ethnic groups fell apart, with both sides committing atrocities. In the fighting Russia put its weight behind the Abkhaz and more than 200,000 Georgians were forced to flee their homes. Today, Abkhazia’s greatly reduced population stands at a little over 240,000.

The loss of Abkhazia and the ethnic cleansing of so many people is the worst tragedy to afflict Georgia since it regained its independence in 1991. The whole dreadful episode brings to my mind a short conversation I had in Tbilisi in the spring of 2015, when the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s role in that had been a major world story for months. In the cafe at Prospero’s book shop on Rustaveli Avenue I briefly met Robert Nalbandov, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Utah State University. Nalbandov told me that he had been writing a book on Russian foreign policy under Putin.

“So what is it like,” I asked, “to be a neighbour of Russia?” I half-thought that I might get a carefully nuanced reply from a cautious academic. But the good professor’s response was bluntness itself. “It sucks,” he said.

As I walked through Abkhazia, it did become clear that linguistically this is a seriously Russified part of the world. Russian is the language on everything from billboards to beer bottles, from fridge magnets to menus. It is the tongue you hear most often.

A linguistic map of Georgia, published by the Tbilisi-based Centre for the Studies of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (website csem.ge) shows how beleaguered the Abkhaz language is. Abkhaz, a Northwest Caucasian tongue spoken by about 100,000 people, is restricted to a band of territory more or less following the coast from Ochamchire in the south to the village of Kaldakhvara in the north, a stretch of about 140 kilometres. In the south Mingrelian, a Kartvelian language related to Georgian, predominates, while in the Kodori valley of eastern Abkhazia there are villages populated by speakers of Svan. The map shows many pockets of Armenian.

But what the map doesn’t tell you at all is the primary linguistic truth of Abkhazia – the Russian language is king.

I also realised, as I headed north, just how very beautiful Abkhazia is. After about four hours’ walking, largely on roads with no sight of the sea, suddenly there was the Black Sea. I had a glorious view of the whole coast stretching to the northwest, with wooded mountains sweeping down to the water and the golden domes of a monastery glinting in the sun. I walked the last kilometres along deserted beaches, sometimes getting my feet wet because the beach was abruptly terminated by rising land. But these were not savage shores and I came safely home to a long straggling village where I found a room overlooking the sea.

The next morning I walked the few kilometres to the golden domes of the huge Novy Afon monastery, established by Russian monks in the 19th century. The monastery and its cathedral are popular spots with day-trippers from Sokhumi. While there were some worshippers, secular tourists set the tone. But it is a very lovely place all the same, with the domes nestling so naturally among the trees.

From Novy Afon I retraced my steps to the main road, past a lake and verdant landscaped gardens, and walked on to Gudauta. This is also a seaside town, but utterly eclipsed by its sisters Sokhumi and Gagra. I checked into a sterile hotel which reeked of the Soviet era. The front door squeaked outrageously and immediately to its left was a building in ruins. In the morning a kitchen babushka dispensed porridge to the guests in a rather Spartan canteen.

After Gudauta the road swept inland and was quite heavy with traffic. The saving grace was the lush subtropical landscape, the trees and the mountains. Some of the trees are so big. The elder trees, with their flowers in bloom, are great bursts of white in the landscape, but so high that the lowest flowers are out of reach. The elderflower cordial enthusiast would need a ladder!

On day three I walked as far as the village of Kaldakhvara. I couldn’t see any sign of a hotel or a B&B so I just went into a shop and asked the owner, a woman, if she knew where I could find accommodation. “Would a tent be OK?” she asked. I said that would be fine and she made a phone call. While I waited I took stock of what she sold. This was a well-provisioned country shop. It had plenty of Abkhaz wine, but the shelves also boasted Jack Daniels and Amaretto.

Soon a young man arrived and whisked me off to a nearby camp site. Sadbey, a 23-year-old Abkhaz, said his small camp site was in its first season. He was a qualified mechanical engineer and had studied at Sokhumi and Rostov-on-Don in Russia. He said his grandfather had provided him with the land to start a business. Sadbey was charming, hospitable and mentally attuned to the wider world. He has an aunt living in Virginia. Never again can I view Abkhazia as an improbable distant land of which I know nothing!

On day four I rested and read one of Margery Allingham’s novels, “Death of a Ghost”. The time always passes agreeably in Ms Allingham’s company.

The next day I completed my walk through the heart of Abkhazia and entered Gagra. Walking along roads is not the ideal scenario, but I felt better acquainted now with this part of the world. I knew the sounds of the Abkhaz countryside – the chirruping of crickets, the tinkle of cow bells and, rather less poetic, the whirr of grass trimmers.

For some of my walk from Sokhumi the road had run alongside a railway line. If you ride this line far enough, you arrive in Moscow. Put the other way, you can travel from Moscow’s Kazansky station and 36 hours later arrive in Gagra, in the subtropics. I had never thought before about trains leaving Moscow for the subtropics, but when I checked into my guesthouse I discovered that the place practically shuddered every time a train passed. So I have now mentally adjusted my ideas of Russia’s railway network. There is more to it than the Trans-Siberian.

I warmed to Gagra. It is a popular resort in a good sense, without pretension and simply very lovely, with green wooded hills tumbling down to the sea. If you have been through a north Russian winter, this coast must be a taste of bliss.

I did fall ill in Gagra, with a stomach complaint and the start of a long attack of hiccups. But such is a traveller’s lot on occasions. On my last full day before returning to Sokhumi, feeling distinctly below par, I paid for a place in a 4×4 to go to Lake Ritsa, one of Abkhazia’s star attractions.

The road to Lake Ritsa
The road to Lake Ritsa
A lake that most emphatically vaut le détour
A lake that most emphatically vaut le détour

I was glad that I raised myself from my sick bed. The trip to Lake Ritsa, up in the mountains, was glorious. Now you might imagine looking at a map of the Caucasus, that the route going up to Ritsa is a quiet country road. You would be wrong! The road simply teemed with traffic. Russian tourists in literally hundreds of 4x4s dotted the countryside between the coast and the lake, taking in side tracks that go to two spectacular waterfalls. They often stood in their vehicles, did high-fives with passengers in other cars and generally threw a party over a great swathe of countryside. But what countryside! On the drive to Ritsa the road goes through a canyon and you really couldn’t wish for grander scenery.

The lake itself is sublime. The waters are a light greeny blue and specked with little paddle boats. The backdrop is wooded hills and behind them a line of snow-streaked rocky mountain. This is a very popular spot indeed, but somehow nature accommodated everyone and I didn’t begrudge anyone their time in such splendour. Inevitably, Stalin had a dacha here. (You almost didn’t need to be told that. You could probably guess.)

Back in Gagra for my final evening I watched a fiery red sun sink into the Black Sea. This is a town of great natural exuberance and beauty.

My little health problem accompanied me back to Sokhumi (I travelled in motorised transport this time) and this meant that I did not stray too far from my bed for much of the time. But I did make it to the botanical garden, a well-tended, well-frequented place with shady bamboo groves and soaring pines and palm trees.

After a few days of doing little I decided to head back to Georgia proper. At the border my old friend the passport officer recognised me instantly and we re-entered the conversational realm of matters Celtic, particularly languages.

For the very first time, just minutes before leaving, I had a conversation in English with an Abkhaz citizen. A man in his thirties told me that he had an MBA from the University of Westminster and a hazelnut processing factory in Gali just down the road. “We export hazelnuts to Russia,” he said. I asked how Gali was doing. “We are building, bit by bit.” He said it was slow because no outside investment was coming in, but he struck an upbeat note about Abkhazia. “We have stability,” he told me.

That, presumably, is where the British Foreign Office would disagree with him. But during my 16 days in Abkhazia I didn’t see anything to contradict him. The region felt pretty stable to me and never once did I feel unsafe.

I unfurled my Sokhumi umbrella and in light rain embarked on the 20-minute walk to the Georgian border post. A gentle mist hung over the waters of the Enguri and horse-drawn wagons crossed with their passengers.

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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.

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.