Jan and I were lucky to be allocated a room on the top floor. The balcony gave us a marvellous view – the perfect vantage point from which to watch village life with the dramatic backdrop of mountains beyond. The Keselo Hotel is named after the fortress, above Old Omalo, built when the Mongols were rampaging through in the 1230s. The hotel sits encircled by its paling fence to protect the luxuriant potato patch and laundry line from the free-grazing herds. The Keselo overlooks the common land that tumbles down to the rest of the village. Tussocks of reedy grass trace the rivulets that continue to seep down the mountains long after the snow has melted. Below it the village fans out in a ‘V’. Paths and tracks fan out further below the village and drop out of sight over the edges of the plateau. The grass landing strip supported a flock of sheep that ebbed and flowed across it. A large, trashed, concrete and asbestos building stood beside the runway – another resented reminder of the presence of Soviet troops. The branches of Scots Pines below the hotel constantly exchanged gripes with the wind.
Omalo is at the hub of the four gorges of the Tusheti. The houses are built of slate, timber and corrugated iron. Some of the corrugated iron was gleamingly new. What was not glinting in the sun was rusty and loosely patched with plastic, weighted down with stones. Hens scratched under flapping washing on the lines and telegraph poles, with looping wires, leaned at random angles connecting what to what was unclear.
There is evidence of the Tusheti having been inhabited since 300BC and according to the Imperial Russian census of 1873 there were 50 villages, 1000 households and just over 5,000 people. The Tush were granted lands around Alvani in the 17th century in recognition of their bravery at the Battle of Bakhtrioni when the Persians were defeated. After that many took to over-wintering their animals down on the plains and now barely a double handful remain in the Tusheti throughout the year. However as soon as the Abano Pass becomes negotiable those Tush, who haven’t found what they hope to be more remunerative work as nannies and builders in Russia, Spain and Greece, drive thousands of head of cattle, sheep and horses over the route that we had just driven, before they spread out to their ancestral villages and mountain pastures. Children, hens, building materials, replacement solar panels, seed potatoes and general provisions are crammed into and strapped onto 4x4s. The drive takes three days. When the first snows threaten they make the return trek. They are the last semi-nomads in Europe.
While we did our best to do justice to another delicious lunch our horses appeared and were tied to the Keselo’s fence. We were to spend the afternoon ‘road testing’ horses and tack. The saddles were adapted Russian cavalry saddles – two metal hoops fore and aft attached to each other by wooden planks. Underneath the planks a selection of old blankets was laid to protect the horse’s back. One size would fit all. Attached to the front and back were breastplates and cruppers (looped under the horse’s tail) to stop the arrangement from slipping either forwards or backwards when on the steep slopes. The seat of the saddle, the human interest in the arrangement, was variously an old sofa cushion or a butchered car seat and in every case – I was to ride three different horses – proved blissfully comfortable. The bridles were a marriage of string, leather and webbing. It all worked and none of the horses had any signs of wear or discomfort.
As a child I learned to take all opportunities to ride any equine that was offered. I was pint sized and tough and the offers were many and varied. It was invaluable training and 60 years on – still small enough to ride anything – I still do, provided that it doesn’t look bonkers or evil. One can usually tell a horse’s temperament by the look of its eye. My son, who does not ride, becomes reliably irritated as I judge humans in the same way but one doesn’t go far wrong.
I was given a chestnut mare with a very young foal at foot. It can only have been a few weeks old and scampered along beside us, taking every opportunity to suckle. If we stopped long enough it then lay down in the sun and stretched out to recoup.
Tourniquet, our senior ‘horse-boy’ led the way down through the village, Richard and Carlos, a teenage relative of Tourniquet’s, brought up the rear. Unbroken two and three year old horses from the herd trotted alongside. Sometimes after they had been left behind, seduced by grass or juicy branches, they cantered to catch up. Typically teenage and exuberant they would arrive at speed and barge into each other or our horses. Fourteen humans and over twenty horses and the foal dropped off the edge of the plateau down a cart track into the woods. We wound through birch trees to a river. In places storm water had cut deep rivulets; in others the edges of the track had been washed away. Roots of the trees growing above us, washed by melting snows, dangled frond-like in space. In the distance someone used a chainsaw. A woodpecker’s drill answered. Finches flittered across our path. We crossed the Pirikiti’s Alazani and gently climbed again coming to a wide valley from which the mountains soared. We dropped down again, crossed a stream, climbed and reached another broad flat valley. Richard pointed to the right.
“ Up there is the Dagestan border.”
It seemed as peaceful as the Cairngorms and it was difficult to imagine that only 11 years earlier whole mountain villages had been wiped out during the Dagestan War when an estimated 32,000 civilians lost their lives.
We rode through Shenako with its little church, the only one in the Tusheti that is still in use. A few locals waved, dogs barked, a tethered horse neighed. Then on along a flattish, dusty cart track that snaked across well-cropped grass. There were conifer woods clinging to its steep sides. Here and there were signs of trees scarred by lightening or bowled over by avalanches. Our destination for the afternoon was Diklo about 3 miles further up the valley.
Having dismounted and tied our horses to sagging chain-link fencing, we walked up the main, grassy drag to have a look. Carlos engaged two soldiers in conversation They were there to guard the frontier. With Kalashnikovs over their shoulders they leaned against the sidecar of an old motor-bike, showing less concern for border transgressors than for any cigarettes on offer. The sun was warm and the situation idyllic and I wondered what bravery, or otherwise, they had shown to draw such a plumb posting.
We wandered round. Typical of all the villages that we were to see there was about one house being renovated for six apparently abandoned. In all there were possibly twenty buildings. Simply carved wooden fretwork balustrades, that featured flowers in vases with stars and moons, said to be copies of those in the old Jewish quarter in Tbilisi, edged the new balconies. Old balconies had collapsed. Doors swung from single hinges. Torn blue plastic fluttered in windows, asbestos vied with corrugated iron. A wheelbarrow and shovel left by a pile of slate indicated work in progress – either yesterday or tomorrow. Since our visit this building has become the Diklo Hotel. 8 people may sleep in two rooms in single chipped yellow iron bedsteads. Smoke rose from a lazy fire inside one almost weatherproof house and a pair of jeans and a shirt were slung over a fence to dry.
The soldiers watched us with unconcealed amusement and lit more of Tourniquet’s cigarettes as we walked past them to the far end of the village. On the outskirts we came across the only house that seemed to be inhabited. Meat, bones and skins from hare and sheep were dangling from hooks under the eaves to dry and dripped blood beside the curds themselves dripping from old dress fabric. Behind more wobbly chain-link fencing another splendid crop of potatoes grew encircled by headlands of dock, nettle, couch grass and bright yellow charlock. At the end of this patch a rickety, rusty, iron shack with a single, unglazed window frame hung with extravagantly patterned net curtains, sported a gleaming corrugated iron door – wedged open. A green tarpaulin accounted for most of the roof. Every now and again an old woman came out carrying a shiny metal pan that she put upside down on the twig of a branch that had been stuck in the ground – her draining board. When she saw us she walked over and talked with Khatuna who explained our presence. The Tush love tourists because tourists augment their income and any who make The Pass do so to appreciate their land not to desecrate it. She smiled at us welcomingly. Her face was so darkened by the weather it looked as though it had been treated with timber preservative. It was impossible to tell how old she was but wisps of white hair escaped the scarf she had knotted at the nape of her neck and her hands were well worked. She had seen a lot. Her aquiline profile was ripe for Alfred Munnings to put into a gypsy study.
A couple of people had not felt happy with their horses and Richard asked me whether I would mind swapping. As we retraced our path to Omalo, with the evening sun still warm, and small clouds of dust stirred by Tourniquet’s horse, I thought what a responsibility it must be to suit ten unknown people on unknown horses; to enable everyone to remain safe in areas far from medical help and to enjoy the rides that they have saved and paid for. One of the great things about traveling the world on the back of a horse is that one is not only higher up, has a better view, travels further and faster but also as the horse looks where it puts its feet one doesn’t have to watch one’s own step as diligently. The prerequisite is mutual confidence.