I woke up with a keen breeze on my face. It blew through the open window in the thick wall behind my head and was accompanied by the sound of water urgently trying to reach Pirikiti’s Alazani. The previous evening it had been too dark to see much. I looked round. Jan, still asleep, and I had beds each set well away from the dampness of the walls. The floor and ceiling were new, bright yellow, pine planks. There was a single rather rickety old chair, a folded brightly coloured put-u-up and a naked light bulb. I tip-toed to the window. It looked onto the most majestic tower perched on the cliff above the crashing water.
The towers of the Pirikiti are slightly different to those of the Gometsari. Instead of the single ridged roofs they are pyramidal and with a slightly convex silhouette. The roof tiles rise in shallow steps. Below them there are window openings, rather than arrow slits, with machicolations supported by corbels so that the occupants could lean out and drop discouraging things onto those below.
There is evidence of Bronze age life in the Tusheti. Debate continues whether the original Tush were descended from the Nakhs who ruled Sophene (in Armenia) or the Batsbi from Ingushetia. Whatever the truth the Tush are descended from four mountain peoples. The Tsova from the Tsova Gorge, up river north-west of Verkhovani; the Gometsari; the Pirikiti and the Chagma who lived around Omalo. A square stone carved with a symbol from those days had been recycled into the wall of a Dartlo tower.
Khatuna had arranged for us to visit the village dairy to watch the cheese being made. Tusheti sheep produce milk with up to a 7% fat content and although the yield per ewe is modest the Guda cheese, particular to the Tusheti, is much prized. Shallow enamelled bowls, at least two feet in diameter, were lined along a series of planks. They contained milk, cream and whey in varying stages of separation. It reminded me of home post-war when food rationing was still very much part of life. In the dark cellar of my parents’ farmhouse bags of muslin, suspended from cast iron hooks in the ceiling joists, dripped into bowls placed on cold slate slabs. They contained what would become cream cheese, cream and butter. The method in Dartlo was similar although at some stage the milk had been scalded and the bags – guda in Georgian means sack – were squeezed rather than left to drip. The strained cheese was put into plastic sacks the size of dustbin liners and further wrapped in old fertiliser sacks and stacked, waiting to be carted back over the Pass for sale and the winter. A packet of Daz detergent and some 2 in 1 shampoo containers were balanced precariously on the shelf above.
Reminded of the cellars in my parents’ house I thought of the adjacent ‘pig’ cellar where ham soaked in buckets of brine and pork, ham and sides of bacon were hung from the iron hooks. It struck me that we had not seen a single pig in the Tusheti, yet it is the norm for rural families throughout much of the world to keep a house pig. Khatuna explained that pork is strictly taboo and to such a degree that tourists are advised not even to bring pig products with them over the Pass. That said when some Tush are not in the Tusheti they will eat pork.
100 feet directly above the village stands the remains of Kvavlo, a hamlet with a literally towering tower. We had the choice of riding or walking up. It looked a near vertical climb. I opted to ride. We took a gentle route and passed a large flock of sheep collected for shearing in a temporary shed that had been put up to cover the operation, possibly rain was expected (one cannot shear a wet fleece) or perhaps it was to provide some shade from the mid-day sun. A collection of challenging dogs snoozed with open eyes around the outfield.
In Soviet days there were more than 2 million sheep in Georgia but when the Russians pulled out the Georgians lost their winter grazing on the Caspian sea and, as this was exacerbated by the global collapse of wool prices, the national flock halved. Historically wool was sold ‘unwashed’ for which prices are low but a Tusheti wool processing factory has been established. Although its output is hampered by lack of facilities and outdated equipment, the Tusheti wool is of high quality and much sought. It was used for Pope Francis’ cape and in the Mercedes-Benz Tbilisi Fashion Week.
We rode through an isolated farmyard, largely turfed over, in the middle of which stood a solitary house. The owners emerged to catch their mare to stop her following us though the far gate and shouted at a chained dog. The foal cheekily teased our horses. Carlos knew the owners and exchanged gossip. Hill farmers greet each other in the same way the world over. Their voices have the same pitch. Their hard lives run in parallel with the seasons. That scene, and probably the conversation, would have been the same in any farmstead in the Cheviots or Pyrenees or Carpathians.
Kvavlo had been abandoned. As it would have been impossible to reach by any form of motorized transport I imagine Dartlo had proved a more attractive site to return to after a winter on the plains and certainly would be easier to renovate. The big tower was defying collapse. A crack ran up the side of it and the opposite wall bowed out rather alarmingly, but stand it still did and the roof looked as good as any. The village had been built on a rock outcrop with virtually sheer drops on three sides and only mountain peaks behind. From it we had a near aerial view of Dartlo. This was to be our last full day in the Tusheti and we sat in the sun for a while taking it all in; watching the comings and goings below; hearing the distant unintelligible voices; absorbing yet another spectacular view. We walked back down loosing the horses to look after themselves as it was far too steep to ride. We scrambled down hay fields full of flowers. A man slowly and methodically swung a scythe leaving the neatest of rows in one field. In another two women raked and turned; in another they collected the hay on long-handled pitchforks and carried it, above their heads, to a man who was building stooks in a cone around a tall pole driven into the ground. The finished stooks stood equidistant, uniformly about eight feet high. The hay smelled sweet.
As we were again running behind schedule we decided to have an early lunch before setting off back to Omalo, four hours away. It gave time to wander round and have a closer look at Dartlo. A man was rebuilding a house with slates, as it always had been done, without any mortar. A cockerel strutted his stuff; a very old tractor waited to be hand-cranked back into work. We sat on the grass beside the gorge eating our lunch and as we were reduced to its height a puppy came to inspect us.
Mountain shepherds’ dogs have been bred not only to herd sheep but to protect them from and to kill wolves. They are famously aggressive and many travellers have had cause to remember them. More than once I had been happy that I was on a horse. In the Tusheti their ears are trimmed when they are born to help them hear the wolves approaching. It may sound cruel but it is done for good reason. It prolongs the lives of both dogs, sheep and sometimes shepherds.