13. Georgia 2
Tusheti, Caucus Mountains
High Drama on Horseback.
Justine – The sadness of seeing the dying horse, in the Tushetian mountains could not blunt our excitement as we packed our rucksacks for a three day horse trek. Petra in particular had been desperate to get on a horse and had been grinning like a Cheshire cat ever since we had decided to come to Tusheti in order to do a horse trek. Elaw, the horseman met us the next day after our cha-cha (home brew fire-water) and carrot salad breakfast. The previous evening Petra had chirruped on and on, speculating about what colour the horses would be, what their names would be and whether they would be tranquil or hard mouthed nutters. Not in her wildest dreams could she have dreamed that her and her brother’s horses would arrive with foals in tow, two fluffy little foals with their gangly legs and mini hooves who kept trying to have a quick drink of their mothers’ milk whenever the opportunity arose.
We set off for Dartlo, a village in the next-door valley. As we were walking out of Omalo a French lady who was on foot and leading a horse joined us. Clara was from Brittany and had bought a horse in Armenia and spent the last three months walking over the mountains with the horse carrying her baggage. Previous years, between working for the French government, she had bought horses in China, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan and a variety of other countries. We were deeply impressed that she did these adventures on her own but concluded that we would find it too hard not being able to share the experiences with someone. She had spent three days and two nights leading her horse up the Tusheti road amongst the landslides in the pouring rain. She was nearly as tough as a Tushetian.
We had a fabulous 6 hour ride through the most stunning scenery. The Caucasus are the steepest mountains I have ever seen. Sheer drops plunge down into valleys whose floor is a gushing torrent of water a few metres wide before the next mountain soars up into the sky. The grass, flowers and trees clinging onto the sides of these mountains defy gravity. They are almost vertical in places. Tom and I had been a little worried that none of us had riding hats, particularly the kids but they were oblivious to the dangers posed by the 30cm paths with a sheer drop. We blessed our sturdy steeds who had grown up with this terrain and heaved themselves up the paths with a sure footedness and resignation that only horses can have. I was surprised that Elaw had decided to bring foals with us as it was pretty tricky terrain for their spindly legs, but perhaps he had chosen the mares for the children, knowing that they would never bolt with their foals in tow.
We stopped for lunch in a high meadow and once again savoured the previous two meals in our sandwiches. Elaw, who was quite a chunky man seemed to survive on nothing but cigarettes and declined all offers of sandwiches
We crossed the final river, grey from the slate sediment and arrived at Dartlo. Dartlo is the prettiest village in the Tusheti valley and is being restored beautifully. The Hotel Samtsikhe has taken over 6 old, flint houses in the village and we stayed in a lovely room with a wooden balcony overlooking the river. That evening we walked up the very steep, flower covered hill behind the village to the defensive tower houses on the top and all built our own mini towers out of the slate which forms these mountains.
The next morning, we were all expecting to be walking like John Wayne after our 6 hour ride but incredibly none of us ached at all – could it be that the local cha-cha is not only the medicine of choice for euthanising horses, but also a cure-all for aches. I am sure it also takes stains out of clothing and clears drains with ease.
The next morning we said our farewells to Clara who was heading up the valley to try to cross the snowy pass to the next door valley. Everyone had told her it was still blocked by snow, but she was determined to make the 3 day trek to check if it was passable anyway.
Elaw seemed reluctant to take us on to Diklo, the village on a circular route back to Omalo. It transpired the route was long and difficult and he was concerned the children might be scared on the narrow path with sheer drops of 200 metres down to the river. We had all so enjoyed the previous day’s ride that we told him to were prepared to take the risk. We were so pleased we did, as the route was utterly breath-taking. In the past Tusheti’s population must have been much larger, because we passed the ruins of many slate towers and villages along the route to Diklo.
We continued down a wooded path, lined with fragrant yellow rhododendrons into a very steep ravine, looking out for bear scratches on the trees as we passed. We rode through many small rivers but at the bottom of one ravine was a much larger meltwater river raging under a creaky little bridge. Unbeknown to us, a traumatic event was about to unfold.
Elaw led the way over the rickety bridge. It bowed ominously under the weight of his horse before he made his way up the opposite slope. Tom was next. His horse took some urging and it pawed the bridge’s surface gingerly before crossing safely. Elaw had disappeared into the forest the other side and was unaware of what happened next. Hector’s horse, followed by its little white foal, was too nervous of the bridge and turned to go into the tumultuous river. Petra and I shouted at Hector to stop but he couldn’t stop his horse and it began wading across. The churning water came over Hector’s knees but he clung
on to his saddle. Unbeknown to the horrified spectators, Hector’s reins, which turned out to be made of a Chinese luggage strap, had broken, so he was at the mercy of his horse and the little white foal just bravely followed. Petra started wailing in panic as her horse sensed the danger and began whinnying frantically, prancing and trying to turn in a circle. The path was steep and narrow and as the mare did this, she pushed her own brown foal down the slope to the river’s frothing edge.
Hector’s mare made it to the other side, but there was sudden scream from Petra as Hector’s white foal got washed away by the raging river and disappeared from view under the bridge. With the kids sure that it was as good as dead, I scoured the river until, in disbelief, I saw the white, glistening, sodden foal rise out of the water, like a magical unicorn. My heart leapt before I realised it still had to get to a bank and get out of the vertical sided river. The foal plunged off the rock it was obviously standing on and was swept into a fallen tree with sharp branches protruding in every direction. I ran to the bank calling to it and desperately looking for a way to get to it, but the sides of the ravine were too sheer. I beckoned to Elaw who was coming back to the bridge, to show him the foal was alive although by this time it was trying desperately to swim back to the other bank. Bravely, it went to and fro three times, smashing it’s spindly legs on the sharp slate rocks and debris in the swirling river and disappearing from view under the rapids. I did not see how it happened but somehow the foal finally managed to scrabble and heave it’s way out of the river on the right side and up the slope to it’s whinnying, frantic mother.
There was much consternation on the wooded path. In all the excitement, my horse had got tangled with Petra’s still very distressed mare and suddenly the path collapsed, sending Petra’s mare and brown foal down the shale slope to the river. Hector was sobbing that it was his fault that the foal had nearly died and Tom was consoling him that it wasn’t his fault and that his horse was determined to cross the river. He had had no way of controlling it with his broken luggage strap rein. Petra was still wailing although her horse and foal managed to scramble back up to the path. The foal, now in shock, found its mother’s teat for reassurance but just then the path collapsed again. It hung onto the teat and managed to find a foothold. With the path giving way, and the horses distressed we did not have time to rejoice that the white foal was alive and quickly led our horses on foot up the mountainside to a flat section where we could take stock. As we walked panting up the path, I noticed that my trousers had blood on them. Then I noticed blood on the leaves in front of me and realised that the white foal must be wounded and leaving a bloody trail in the undergrowth.
At the top of the path, we stopped to let both the horses and ourselves recover. The little white foal had a very nasty gash on it’s hind leg, with bits of fat and muscle hanging out. He also had a number of other gashes but none was as serious. We congratulated the kids for holding it together and not letting panic overcome them. The foal could have so easily broken it’s leg in the river and there would have been no way of getting it up the ravine. How hideous it would have been if Elaw had had to kill it by the river. If Hector had come off his horse and been swept down the river too it would have been even worse. We felt immensely grateful that none of these things had happened, although we were worried for the sodden little foal with its leg still pouring blood.
We could have all done with some cha-cha at this moment, but we had to make do with our recycled breakfast sandwiches. The beauty of the rest of the ride soothed our jangled nerves. Petra was distracted and still concerned for the foal, but its wound had now clotted and I marveled at the stamina of the little thing which hobbled bravely after us, up and down the sheer slate paths, for another four hours.
That night in Diklo village, we offered to pay for a vet to be jetted in but Elaw assured us that the foal would be alright after he gave it a good clean. He’d stitch it up when he got back to his farm the next day. We stayed in the one guesthouse in the village and were surprised to find the family all spoke Spanish. It turned out that they were Tushetian born and bred but had lived for 8 years in Tenerife. I asked what they preferred, the beauty of Tusheti or the heat of Tenerife. The glamorous mum, used to the mod cons of Spain and now baking bread in a wood fired, 100 year old oven, said wistfully, ‘ahhh la playa.’ It had been a huge change, too, for the three children. Warm Spanish evenings in the square exchanged for beautiful meadows but no other children closer than a day’s ride.
We went for a gorgeous walk to an ancient fort built on a promontory of rock, with sheer drops on three sides. It looked over both the Checnen and the Dagestan borders, a wall of snowy, jagged mountains. It seemed amazing that the ferocious muslim tribes , united by Shamyl could have come streaming over these inhospitable mountain ranges in the 19th century. On the way up to Tusheti we had stopped at Tsiandali, the estate of the Chavchavadze family, who in 1854 had 23 women and children kidnapped one night from their estate, by Shamyl and his men, causing shockwaves across Russia and Europe. Seeing the terrain they would have dragged these unhappy sole up and over in to Dagestan was quite something.
Next morning we were relieved to find the little white foal alive and well. We rode back to Omalo through the buttercup meadows as the little one limped along behind us. We said goodbye to our wonderful, steady steeds and camped amongst the trees. The next morning as the grey clouds poured over the mountain peaks we packed the tent in the quickest time yet before it started to rain. We were rather nervous about going down the infamous Tusheti road in a rainstorm but Tom was only too pleased to be back on his steel horse. We had reason to be nervous as the rainstorm had caused 9 landslides along the road and we had to wait 5 hours for a digger to clear the way. Hector was beside himself with indignation that there was an army truck full of men from the Chechen border, drinking cha-cha. Hector grabbed our shovel and marched over to them trying to motivate them to help him clear the road. They told him they had tried to dig for an hour but got nowhere so had given up to drink instead…….. Hector was furious.
The other stranded travellers were an interesting bunch. One Israeli told us of her parents’ horrendous holocaust stories and a Czech woman told us how, on the way up the Tusheti road, they had almost been hit by a landslide and she was now so scared of travelling that she was never going to leave her home town again. The local Georgian travellers were delightful. They tried to ply us with cucumbers and cha-cha and gave us rather worrying thoughts of them driving drunk down the rest of the road!
At the bottom of the mountain there is a section where the cliff overhangs the road and a small waterfall cascades down. The cool clear water crashing onto the roof was too tempting because by now we were all hot, dusty and sticky. We all jumped out, stripped off and had the most wonderful and refreshing cold shower in the middle of the road. There was a mass fumbling of clothes as a police jeep appeared round the corner and we all tried to hurriedly get dressed. We found a campsite by the river nearby and were all very pleased to be at the bottom of the mountain. It was only then that Tom discovered that one of the front leaf springs had rattled undone and was hanging on rather precariously. Not what you want to discover after such a terrifying decent!