The Tusheti – from Tbilisi to Mtseka

Having decided that equine ‘adventure’ tourism was the way forward, as long as the mind was willing and the body able, I surfed the internet in idle moments.  I happened on a ride in the Tusheti region of Georgia. It was marketed to be led by Richard Dunwoody MBE, thrice Champion National Hunt Jockey, equine photographer and tireless adventurer and fund raiser.

My knowledge of Georgia was lamentable. I knew that it was at the far end of the Black Sea; that Stalin and Shevardnadze were Georgian, that the best food to be had in Moscow was in the Georgian restaurants and that the Georgians didn’t much like the Russians. That was it.  Time to put it right.

The Tusheti is a National Park of over 206,000 acres 175 miles north east of Tbilisi.  The mountains rise above 15,700ft. Rivers carry ice and snow-melt. They  cascade down gorges. tumble along valleys and curve round plateaux.  Unless one is up for reaching The Tusheti via Dagestan or Chechnya, on which it borders, the only way in is via the 10,000ft Abano Pass that is passable in summer.

That August we landed at Tbilisi’s Novo Alexeyevka International Airport*. I had persuaded Jan to come with me. As it was the last night flight in, the airport was almost deserted and it was easy to spot the other members of the ride, even before we clocked  crash helmets in their trolleys. Richard met us and as we sped through sleeping Tbilisi he told us what, if everything went according to plan, the following day would bring.

It brought an early start. We gathered in the ‘boutique’ hotel foyer before Tbilisi woke. Richard introduced us to Khatuna our Georgian guide, luggage was crammed into the back of two 4x4s, and still clutching bits of breakfast, we climbed in. We stopped to extract enough lari from a hole in the wall to see us out until we returned, and were assured by Richard and Khatuna that we would have time to explore Tbilisi when we did so. We swung north.

Twelve miles later we left the tarmac, climbed up a fairly steep, winding, dirt track and arrived at the Church of the Holy Cross – Jvari Church. It is dedicated to Saint Nino, one of the patron saints of Georgia who had arrived there seventeen hundred years before us. He was responsible for converting the Georgian Queen Nana and King Mirian III to Christianity. This tiny little domed octagon of a church built in the beginning of the 17th century, is one of the most holy sites in Georgia. Fittingly it was sited on an outcrop of rock high above the confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi and it gave us our first of the many spectacular views in Georgia. Although the distant hills between us and South Ossetia were in mist we could look down on Mtsketa. It had been the capital of eastern Georgia, for two hundred years until King Vakhtang moved his court to Tbilisi in the 5thcentury. On a bank where the rivers met Svetitskhoveli Cathedral sat protected by its eighteenth century wall.

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A problem with having Bathurst as a surname is that anyone living near Cirencester has probably heard of the family that has enjoyed owning a chunk of the area for 400 years.  For nearly 80 of those years the family bred a pack of hounds that they followed unwaveringly in pursuit of the fox. My mother-in-law had broken her back while hunting but hadn’t let the fact that she was confined to a wheelchair for the last 30 years of her life, stop her from being a hands on Master of Hounds. Richard was a Gloucestershire boy so having seen my name on the list he assumed that I hunted and would not be lily-livered about accidents.  Jan and I were inspecting the carved stone angels with their entwined wings over the church door when Richard asked for  a quiet word.

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“On the previous ride we had a couple of accidents. Do you think I should tell the others?”

“What they don’t know won’t give them cause for concern. What happened?”

“One horse lost its footing and fell into the river below. Fortunately the rider fell off quite quickly.”

“You said accidents, plural?”

“Yes, a horse turned turtle at one of the river crossings and the rider went underneath it”.

Jan and I agreed that on a need to know basis – the others didn’t. ” Tell them when the ride is over – possibly.”

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the spiritual home of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Tradition has it that Christ’s robe, scooped up by a Georgian who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time of The Crucifixion, is buried somewhere beneath the nave. It is the third church on the site. King Mirian built the first and King Vakhtang Gorgaseli built another in stone in the 5th Century, the remnants of which are still visible. In the early 11thcentury the Patriarch of the day built the present magnificent cathedral that not only survived a serious earthquake and being attacked by Tamerlane in the 14th century but also decades of anti-religious Soviet oppression. It remains in remarkably good shape.

We approached this venerated place on foot as the entrance was surrounded by what the French call ‘travaux’ whether anyone is working or not.  The surrounding roads were dug up. Pavements and steps were negotiated with the help of planks balanced on bricks. It was refreshing to be away from Health and Safety. We went through the great South gates into the cathedral compound past nuns who guarded the entrance, and the entrance money, with beady eyes.

The initial impression of this UNESCO World Heritage Site was of a vast green and pink building with a pepper pot drum cupola, standing in the middle of a neglected football pitch. Not that there were any signs of the monks or nuns having played football, but the grass, where the few tussocks sprouted, had the appearance of an edge-of-town bit of scrub where local children kick balls and share bicycles. The surrounding defensive wall supported eight towers and gun emplacements. There were no gravestones. A couple of sheep grazed in the shadow of a larch tree. A third rubbed its ear against the corner of a hencoop.

The cathedral is largely sandstone with red stone inlay and carvings.   Some of the stone is greenish, and the cupola is green stone. I loved the carvings on the outside walls: the two 5th century bulls’ heads, retrieved from the earlier cathedral; the bunches of grapes – forever present in Georgian folklore – and the signs of the zodiac. For me these carvings were the best bit. The inside of the cathedral was full of the remains of dead kings and 20th century reproductions of ancient frescoes and icons. The surviving originals have been moved to the recently consecrated Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi.

Khatuna must have noticed our blood sugars dipping and took us to a restaurant where we sat outside at a long table on a terrace above the fast flowing Mtkavari River, on its way to the Caspian Sea. Birds chirruped in the trees on its banks. Soon the table was covered with multiple, different dishes. Bowls of the unfamiliar were spread out before us. Beers, water and wine filled the few available spaces.

“Come on – please help yourselves: do eat!“ encouraged Khatuna, justifiably pleased with what was on offer.

Coriander, garlic, crunchy freshly chopped green walnuts, beans, pomegranate seeds and chillies infused in different proportions with a variety of vegetables; bowls of spicy lobio (bean soup) and the delicious kachapuri – a sort of puff-pastry version of naan bread with gooey melted cheese inside. Bowls were replenished as we made up for a day of traveling, airline food and a rushed breakfast. Then just as we all were starting to rest our knives and forks, trays burdened with more aromatic, steaming dishes arrived. What we had thought was our lunch turned out to have been the first course. Set before us were shashlyk, stuffed aubergines, chicken with sour plum sauce, stuffed vine leaves and khinkali– spicy meat dumplings. Needless to say we had the greatest difficulty making inroads into the walnut and raisin torte and the yoghurt with local honey that came after. Georgian food lived up to its Muscovite reputation.

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*In 2015 the airport at Tbilisi was renamed Shota Rustaveli after the Medieval poet who died in 1216. I wonder, just like Chenghis Khan and Manas, who have international airports in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan named after them,  what he would have made of it.

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Khatuna Gabitashvili –


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