Eight of us shared the plumbing facilities on the top floor of the Keselo. They seemed to have been tacked on to the back of the building as an afterthought and were approached by a bridge, open to the elements on both sides. The shower and loo shared the linoleum covered floor that sloped and drained the shower, past the loo, towards the door. It worked well provided one remembered to pick the loo paper off the floor and wedge it with towel and clothes on the window ledge. Everything was squeaky clean and the water was hot. The washbasin, outside on the bridge, enabled one, while cleaning one’s teeth, to have an aerial view of the flowering potatoes on one side and the steep paddock going up the mountain on the other.
The better I understood the layout of the Keselo it became clear that each summer another bit had been added to take the increasing number of visiting trekkers. Alongside the original house was a free-standing dining room and beyond that in another building – the kitchen. Someone in the family was very adept at DIY. I tried to imagine all the kit being brought over the Abano Pass. Later I was told that it is often less hassle to slip over the mountains into Chechnya although that means horses or Shanks’ pony. The Tush and Chechnyans have rubbed along over the centuries and often intermarried. Frontiers are drawn on maps by urban scribes. This one proved no barrier to those crossing it.
We collected, clean and refreshed, in the ‘cocktail bar’. Garden benches, stools and large logs were drawn up under the Scots Pines. We pooled the Duty Free and the iron rations we had bought along the way. Wine, coke, Fanta, vodka, beer and whisky jostled with a tin teapot, china cups without saucers, old mustard glasses and packets of crisps – all on a small metal table. The sun was still warm. In the village below children were being rounded up for supper, fires lit, working beasts returned to pastures. We had arrived at ‘base camp’, met our horses, ridden them without mishap for about 13 miles, had started to learn about our travelling companions and were ready to attempt to do justice to another Georgian feast. Life was good.
A Georgian legend is that God took a lunch break while creating the world but he was so deep in thought that he tripped over the Caucasus and spilled his food. It landed on Georgia. A lot landed in the Tusheti. For the next week we were to be the beneficiaries of this stumble. I had been in Moscow some years before and had been advised to eat in Georgian restaurants wherever possible but had not fully appreciated quite how universally delicious Georgian food would be and how generously we would be welcomed in Georgia, regardless of our hosts’ circumstances. The Keselo was a business but I can’t believe their food margins stacked up. Their long inherited tradition of entertaining visitors won. More khachapuri, khinkali; lamb, chicken, chillies, tomatoes, onions, walnuts and garlic slipped over our taste buds. Our stomachs were adapting to cope with the challenge and our hosts were left in no doubt that we thoroughly enjoyed everything that they put before us.
In the morning I realised that we had divided into two groups. Those of a certain age had gone to bed while we still had the ability to manage the ladder-like stairs. The younger element had thought that with enough vodka the stairs would manage themselves and there was no hurry to turn in. Impressively those light of sleep recovered remarkably quickly the next morning, rehydrating with the delicious tea made with freshly cut meadow herbs. I didn’t notice whether they ate the breakfast of cold macaroni cheese.
With lunch packed, our macs, spare fleeces and swimming things tied to our saddles, and cameras slung about us, we rode out of Omalo back along the route towards the Abano pass. The track looked every bit as narrow as when we had come up in the 4x4s. The river looked even further below. My horse seemed as keen to travel on the outside as I was for it to hug the mountain and it was a relief to reach the river. We threw a left up to the village we had spotted on our way in – Kumelaurta. Having watered the horses at the trough fed from a gushing pipe set into the hill, we climbed behind the houses ducking laundry lines, through home paddocks and on up into the woods.
I had been disappointed in the horses. Some of the youngsters that ran loose beside us looked as though they might make something but I wouldn’t have given any of them stable room at home. How wrong I was. We climbed and climbed through the woods. From time to time the path became less challenging as we followed what was probably a ridge, had we been able to see it for the trees, but for the most part it was so steep that the human eye was level with the hocks or even fetlocks of the horse in front. Where roots had been exposed by erosion, knee-high steps had been created. Stopping to take a few deep breaths, with heaving flanks, the horses hauled themselves up. You could feel them motivating themselves to manage it. They never stumbled. They climbed and climbed. Through such thick forest it was difficult to gauge how far or where we’d been, how far or where we were going. Up. Up. Then way ahead of us rays of sun began to penetrate the branch cover. The trees thinned. The unbroken horses smelled grass and pushed past. We had reached pasture above the tree line. The ground became gently undulating. The sun was warm. The horses were no longer panting. The turf was springy and we could ride abreast. Sometimes the land dipped and the horses broke into a gentle canter. We travelled East along the shoulder of the mountain with its peak, sometimes visible, to our right. Over the brow of another small climb and there below us was Lake Oreti. A glacial lake over 6,500ft up, in a circular hollow wrapped in the grass sleeved arms of the mountain. It was almost perfectly round, with an equally perfect beach belting its turquoise water. The Tush call it Udziro – bottomless. High above us shale-covered ridges linked peaks.
“This where we will have lunch “ said Khatuna.
We dismounted and left the horses to graze. The foal, that had managed to keep with its mother throughout the climb, had a long drink then slept. Khatuna spread a cloth on the grass just over the brow on the southern bank and began to remove tomatoes, fruit and cheeses from her saddlebag. In the far distance we could spot Omalo in the haze. We saw exactly how well sited it was on its plateau between the gorges of the Piritkiti Alazani and the Gomstari Alazini that join before flowing off to Dagestan. The border was barely a mile to our East. The mountains poked their snowcaps into the cloud.
Some of us snoozed, occasionally opening our eyes to make sure that the view was not a dream. Team Youth edged gingerly into the Oreti, with arms stretched above their heads, letting out yelps as the icy water inched up their midriffs.
On the way back the loose horses, rested and going home, cannoned passed us bucking and shaking their knotted manes. When we reached the tree line we dismounted to lead our horses down. With one eye on my horse behind me and the other on the heels of the horse in front, I jumped from root to rock to root, slithered into mires created by snowmelt and sometimes managed to grab at branches to steady the pace. Root, rock, root, bog and root. My knees objected but there was no stopping and mindless motion took over. After about an hour we spilled into the sunshine of the home paddocks above Kumelaurta. Two mares and their foals neighed and trotted up. We took the horses to the trough to quench their thirsts.
Having remounted we cheerfully started off towards Omalo but where the trough had overflowed the track was rutted and one of the horses stumbled and fell. It was not the horse’s fault. The rider, the least experienced of all of us and a heavy dead weight, had probably exacerbated the horse’s momentary imbalance. Understandably she lost confidence. I changed horses again. I was sad to lose my little horse. My admiration for it, at having climbed that path in the first place and then having followed me down without once knocking into me or treading on my heels, had become affection.
An unique thing about riding is that you can go off and lose your thoughts with your horse without offending anybody. It is your space in the big outdoors. When you see something interesting you can share it by pointing it out. When you need conversation you can pull back to those behind or catch up those in front. Everybody does it.
So it was as we climbed back to Omalo. Carlos hummed tunes as he rode ahead with his feet dangling from the stirrups. The loose horses snatched at vegetation. We looked back at where we had been with appreciation and a sense of achievement. There is something special about coming down from the mountains in a late afternoon and returning to a village. I do not know whether it is in joining the cattle ambling back to the byres; or the sheep being brought into safety from the wolves for the night; or hearing children released from lessons but not yet rounded up for supper, probably all of these things. Going back to the Keselo felt part of that village ritual.