It was during a toast over our hearty mountain dinner that it hit me for the first time that day. I’m not sure if it was the third or the fourth toast of the night, but this toast was for the horses and the dogs, I think. We’d already had the toast for the dead relatives, and the one for the folks who never had any kids – they got their very own toast – now we were celebrating our most loyal beasts. We were necking Georgian white wine by the glass and, as my guide and translator screwed her face up at the shock of yet another one down the gullet, and ashed her cigarette in an hollowed-out horse’s hoof, it occurred to me: I was actually in Tusheti.
Overland travel, and travel on a budget, has a habit of moving so slowly sometimes, that you don’t actually notice that anything is changing. The Turks are pretty much like the Greeks, the Persians are pretty much like the Turks, and the Georgians are a jumble of all three, with a heavy dose of Russian influence that they don’t seem all that keen to acknowledge.
But this night was different. Little over 24 hours earlier I’d been trudging the cobbled streets of Georgia’s quaint and European, but not exactly exciting, capital city Tbilisi, looking for a way out. I wanted to see the north-east of the country and, not for want of trying, I’d failed to organised anything prior to arriving in the capital. With my days ebbing away in museums and cafes, this was my last chance to lock in 5 days in what is supposed to be the most pristine corner of this curious nation in the middle of the Caucasus. So I went door to door. In and out of office buildings, up and down stairs, I knocked on any door that had the word “travel” on the sign.
Eventually a door opened into a spartan room occupied by three smiling women at two desks who shared one computer. They seemed sceptical: it was very expensive for just one person to get to Tusheti and their company had no groups going. But that wasn’t reason enough for me to give up, so one of them got on the mobile to a man named Shota. Shota knew no English, but he had a car, and he sure knew Tusheti. So Shota got on the phone to a friend who had never been to Tusheti, but knew how to speak English. Eventually the smiling women were able to give me a price for the return trip with Shota, and a price per day for the guide, who would ride with us. Within an hour, I’d handed over a small fortune in Georgian laris to the smiling women, and received in return a receipt, and an agreed pickup time and place the next morning.
Shota, a warm and amiable father in his late 20s and Salome, a female masters student a few years younger, collected me from my hotel lobby fashionably late, just late enough to relieve me of the growing feeling that I’d been sold a dummy, and we set off without delay.
Georgia is instantly beautiful. There’s something about green hills that appeal to a man living on the edge of a desert, and Georgia delivers before you’ve even left the city limits. The hills are gentle and pleasing right into the wine-growing region of Kakheti, where we swapped our minivan for a Land Cruiser 4WD. Once in the Land Cruiser, the landscape got serious. We plunged into a river valley, steep, deep green and pine treed either side and rushing, rocky blue waters in the middle. For two hours, Salome and I stared out of the windows with the same childish joy in our faces. Only periodic motion sickness could take our minds off the nature show going on outside. On the road we jostled with Border Police trucks, winded and climbed, past the tree line and into the clouds, over a pass at about 2900m and then began descending. We looked down on a valley below bathed in sunshine, bottomed out near the rushing Alazani River, and wound steadily up to our destination.
Approaching the village, we disturbed a bird of prey perched on a post, who took off and flew level with us for a few hundred meters. The village of Omalo is a cluster of houses clinging to a hill overlooking the twists of the Alazani before that river disappears into the Russian republic of Dagestan. The hill is crested by a cluster of medieval defensive towers, carpeted in yellow and purple flowers, and surrounded by deep green and snow-coated mountains. The geography has kept Tushetians isolated enough that centuries of Christianity, then Islam, then Soviet atheism, and Christianity again, have failed to dislodge their native pagan animist traditions. The climate helps, too – for 3 seasons of the year the village is practically deserted, left to the wolves and the bears, buried beneath meters of snow, the passes impassable even by 4WD cars. We coasted up to a balconied wooden inn with a table and chairs lazing in the afternoon sun, and checked in.
And so it was that I found myself toasting dead horses with a Tushetian man drinking Kakhetian wine, while my Tbilisian guide and translator ashed her cigarette in the former foot (shoe included) of one of the very creatures we were celebrating. Outside were the cacophonous squeaks of a litter of Tushetian sheep dogs crying to be fed and a rumble of thunder signalled it was late August and the Tushetian summer was coming to an end. I was truly, to use the cliche, a world away. How unlikely it all looked little more than a day before on the cosmopolitan streets of Tbilisi.