We had had an unforgettable time at Verkhovani – I mean who gets to sleep half way up an 800 year old tower for starters? Then add listening to Tush music on traditional Tush instruments round a fire that sent sparks into a starry sky untouched by light pollution, while hugging mugs of home-brewed Chacha. If it is true that when one dies signal events flash across the brain then that evening will be there. Hopefully.
We were sad to say goodbye to our hosts who had entertained so generously in every way, even by Georgian standards, but there was the Makratela range to be crossed and Tourniquet was disinclined to reward the escapees with a breather. The path rose straight up behind the tower, then going round a small shoulder we dropped into a gully carved by a stream rushing down to join Gometsari’s Alazani. The path followed its bank. We ducked low branches; the horses snatched at succulent leaves; tiny birds flashed past; bog plants thrived on the edges of little eddies. Plant smells of many varieties carried on the damp air. When the trees thinned we could see that the path climbed steeply away from the stream. Tourniquet indicated that we would cross to the other bank where a path disappeared up over another shoulder through tufty grass. The current was deceptively strong, the water deep and the boulders were bigger than they had looked when seen from above the surface – like icebergs. The horses did very well to neither stumble nor slip.
Above us the derelict hamlet of Dadikurta came into view.
“Be careful here” said Richard as we skirted below its crumbling walls “the ground isn’t that firm: watch how you go.”
After we had reached earth with enough nettle and dock roots to stabilise it, he divulged that this was where the path had collapsed and the horse had fallen into the stream. We were probably only 50 feet above it but the horse had landed upside down in the water and by the time they reached it, it was motionless and looked as though it had drowned. Fortunately it was ‘just’ trussed up by the reins and as soon as they cut it free, it had managed to thrash its way out of trouble. It had been spared this trek to give it time to recover. A near miss of which the rest of the group remained blissfully unaware.
We climbed up and up. There was no wind, barely a wisp of cloud and the sun was pleasantly warm on our backs and quite warm enough on the horses’ who were doing all the work. In each fold of the mountain another herd of cattle stood at the source of a spring idly swishing their tails. After the previous day, the going seemed easy and felt not unlike many layers of the Dorset hills rising like steps to the 9,500ft Nakaicha Pass. We climbed higher and higher. Just as we were nearing what did finally proved to be the top, a horse standing on the ridge announced our impending arrival to its herd. They gathered like Red Indians in a Western in a line on the ridge and looked down at us. Then, shaking their manes, they cavorted almost vertically down and cantered round us bucking and snorting. Hot and sweaty, their game over, they pawed the ground and rolled in a little dip where the snow had lasted longest and the earth was still muddy. The stallion, waiting for the heats of mares with recently dropped foals, warned them not to join us and warned our horses not to get involved. Mares, bagged up and ready to foal, sedately watched it all from the ridge.
We sat on the soft grass of the pass, wolfing our lunch kachapuri and looked across at the 13,000 feet teeth of the High Caucasus. They formed a seemingly impenetrable barrier between the Tusheti and Chechnya. It was difficult to imagine how man or beast could cross them, let alone while bearing solar panels.
After the previous day I reckoned to be near impervious to the implied danger of riding sheep-tracks with unbroken drops to crashing rivers and their rocks far below but I was delighted when Khatuna told us to lead the horses down to Pirikiti’s Alazani. After lunch I had peered over the edge and it didn’t look as though it would be an hugely enjoyable ride. Walking down was lovely. We traversed the side of the mountain and on reaching a rock cleft, switched direction and traversed back again. I found that if I jumped when turning, keeping my boots together as if skiing, I didn’t slip. A trekking Black Run. The weather remained fine and sunny, we were out of the wind and the only threat came from the loose horses that would stop to graze, become left behind, then canter down, kicking pebbles in their wake, seeing no need to wait for a wider place to pass.
“Watch out loose horses!” echoed across the gorge from time to time.
My only regret was that the ground-hugging Caucasian rhododendrons were no longer in flower. The banks were covered in them. It must look stunning in Spring. After a couple of hours we reached the bottom. Khatuna and Tourniquet awarded us half an hour to regroup. The horses grazed and we looked at the way we’d come and then, impressed with ourselves (and knees), lay back looking at the sky. Life was perfect.
Despite having left Verkhovani late we had made good time coming down and Khatuna offered us a dog-leg visit to the virtually deserted village of Parsma. Although built in a defensible position on a crag above the river, protected by a now crumbling gateway, it was easily reached by a steep, wide and firm cart track.
It was in Parsma that I first took on board the significance of Tush religion. Shenako has the only church in the Tusheti still in use. Christianity was always resisted and Animism prevails. Throughout there are khati – shrines. They are strictly off-limits for women. I find graveyards fascinating but the Parsma graveyard was also off-limits. In fact when we arrived in the grassy middle of the village, while Richard could wander freely, we could not. Khatuna asked us to stay-put and on-board. Normally The Rebel, I didn’t want to embarrass Khatuna and although there seemed to be no-one about I felt that we were being watched. There was bound to be someone tweaking a blue plastic sheet at one of the dilapidated windows. It was disappointing but in retrospect what makes graveyards fascinating are dates and names; communities succumbed to disease; families specialists in longevity. With limited knowledge of Cyrillic and none of Georgian, I was missing no more than the elusive company of the dead.
The cart track linking Parsma to Dartlo followed the river. We ambled along and became strung out. The river swooshed under frozen snow bridges left by avalanches; round rock fall and over boulders until it reached wider places in the gorge when it slowed to snake between lush grass. In one loop a herd of horses, intent on such sweet pasture, lifted their heads momentarily and managed only desultory whinnies. On a far bank a couple of shaggy sheepdogs left us in no doubt that it would be unwise to cross to their side of the river where sheep had been collected in a temporary fold. Smoke curled from a makeshift hut. The shepherd was too deep into whatever occupied him to return greetings. Perhaps he couldn’t hear above the sound of water and dogs.
As the gorge narrowed again the river gathered pace. We passed a small herd of donkeys who brayed in discordant chorus, some of the younger ones cantered beside us for a few yards in their stilted way. Then as the sun went below the mountains we rounded a corner and saw Dartlo. It was a welcome sight in the chilling air. It had been a long day.
Tourniquet and Carlos stopped below the village by the track and started unloading the pack horses. We stopped beside them but as I swung down a woman rushed from the nearest house shouting and waving her arms. This was not the usual friendly Georgian welcome. It turned out that we had dismounted on the wrong side of the track. We had followed Carlos and Tourniquet but only men could walk on those blades of grass. It was sacred turf.
The shrine was in the remains of a Russian church, roofless, with one long wall and both gable ends. A small tree had rooted in the spalls between copings. The standing wall contained the remnants of three elegant Romanesque arches. Barbed wire looped where the fourth wall had stood. A few yards away an imposing stone door frame, led nowhere, unless it was to an out of sight graveyard by the river.
That drama over, we were welcomed to Dartlo. It is up a gentle slope from the river; a collection of towers and buildings in the usual state of decay and renovation. In Dartlo renovation was winning. We were billeted in various houses in the village. In the garden, against the wall of our building, someone had lit an oil drum stove and filled it with logs that were already blazing. The metal creaked.
“You will have hot water in a minute. The toilet is down there.”
On a lower terrace, another one-time veg patch, was a lean-to containing a pristine, white tiled shower room. The loo had the luxury of a new Bakelite seat. Verkhovani is glorious but its plumbing had not been. Trying to have a shower in a room so dark that I had needed a head torch to see where to put my feet had defeated me. Dartlo’s plumbing was 21st Century. The fittings came from Chechnya. I left my towel and clothes on a patch of nettles by the door and enjoyed a near scalding shower.
A long table, under a newly built veranda with benches either side, was ready for us. It overlooked a redundant stock yard. Dish after dish were laid on the table. Khinkali (dumplings) were cooked in a big blackened cauldron on a log fire in the yard. Next to the cauldron Mtsvadi (shashlyk) sizzled on a metal grid. They arrived at the table in waves. Of the mortal sins, I am most likely to be found guilty of gluttony. Nowhere has offered me more scope to indulge than Georgia, and nowhere in Georgia was I at more temptation than in Diklo. Perhaps it was the Chacha that acted so effectively as a digestif but sleep on that very full stomach was untroubled and deep.