Saturday, August 31, 2013

Tusheti - The Great Caucasus Mountains (Part One)

The thing is this; the world is full of remote places, but usually one doesn't want to be in them, and then there are those faux-remote places that are simply odd hybrids. Then there is Tusheti, remote, hospitable, comfortable and (one hopes) unassailable.

Simply driving up the road from the gentle, agricultural Alazani Valley is daunting, and it is easy to realise how such isolated people have remained so; what is harder to comprehend is how the outside world has allowed the world of the high mountains remain so independent. For these are not dumb and insular people; oh no! Each year the population of the mountain villages bring their animals and families down to the lowlands in October before meters of snow render the road impassable for the next seven months.

In May the migration is reversed, and the families take their world back over the Abano Pass and again repopulate the villages of the valley. Some thirty or so families remain in the highlands throughout the year, and in some of the smallest communities, without phone connection or power, the winter will pass slowly, but in constant and absolute communion with their world, the history of the Tush people that both drives and ensures its future.

The region is extraordinary. Surrounded by a circle of high, high mountains, with only one “road” and a few horse tracks scaling the rugged passes accessing the outside world there is a small lowland bowl where the major settlement of Omalo lies. Two rivers pour down between sharp mountain sides, and it is along these river banks that another dozen or so small communities lie.

We drove first to Darklo, a community of about 200 souls, and an important centre on the Pirikitis Alazani River. It is a lovely village; a clutch of fifty or so wooden houses overlooking the river, and its collection of towers standing sentry against invasion from the northwest. We spent a  couple of hours wandering between the  old houses, drinking wild-thyme tea generously provided to us, and enjoyed the curious feeling of timelessness that permeated the village.

And then we continued. The track narrowed as we continued some twenty kilometres upriver to Chesho and eventually to a truly beautiful village called Parsma.

We parked by the river and wandered up to the community; it was a robust walk for a prairie-dweller, and panting embarrassingly at the top, we turned a corner around a large rock and, stepping through a Looking Glass, to the surprise of the community we wandered in. It was a very holy day, and the village was preparing for their feast, in Georgia the Supra is a vital part of community life, and represents the interdependence of family, friend and life. It is also an excuse to drink one’s body weight in local wine, and party long into the night.

Toasting, feasting, laughing, drinking, eating and loving are the strands from which the fabric of Georgia is woven, and the final piece, hosting strangers, was clearly on their minds as we approached.

Immediately four more plates were ordered; the village leader with a sharp knife in one hand, a horn of wine in the other and disconcertingly a United States Postal Service t-shirt, came to us smiling.

“You must join us”, he said, as translated by our friend Ia, “There is no choice in the matter”. With such an uncompromising start we laughed, and explained that as happy as we were to be invited, we really couldn't stay. This answer seemed to lack relevance to our position as stranger in a village that had just slaughtered a sheep, cooked it, set aside a bathtub of wine and wanted external company.

“We are off,” we said, “thank you for your kind offer”; we turned and took a step or two. “Wine or Vodka” was the response, emphasised by a very rustic chap with a poor selection of teeth,but an engaging smile and his wife who sported a rather touching mustache. “Wine”, I said.

We edged back to the table that he had been rustically butchering the late sheep, and with a majestic wipe it was cleaned of the worst detritus. An order was called that in retrospect must have been “If the strangers won’t come to our table to feast, bring the feast to this table”. Cheese, mutton, cucumbers, tomatoes appeared along with the drinking horns that needed to be consumed to ensure both everlasting friendship and a hangover. I drunk horns, chewed mutton (delicious), swallowed some tomato and then, very carefully, taking care to appreciate the marvellous architecture and resilience of the middle-aged forts, we sloped away from this expression of Combat Hospitality and went back to the van.

We continued a further three or four kilometers to Girevi, or almost there as the road finally ran out, and beyond this point, only Tush horsemen, skilled to levels unseen in contemporary life, and outside a circus environment, could proceed.

We had reached a point on the earth that few ever imagine and fewer still ever visit. Three or four miles from the Chechen border we were in a truly special place. For once, I was speechless and still am having difficulty in comprehending where I was and how I felt. Tushetian life is intact, clearly satisfying and as lively and resonant today as it was a thousand years before.

End of Part One

Winnipeg to Omalo - an unusual journey

I like journeys; I like the feeling of movement, the unfolding landscapes and the frisson of excitement that comes with each corner turned. I do, however, have limits, and the forty-hour odyssey that took me from suburban Winnipeg, anodyne and comfortable to Omalo, raw and isolated, was an epic.

A cheery farewell at the Winnipeg airport, a normal flight to Chicago and ample time there to head into town and enjoy lunch and a gawk at the city’s ever-fascinating skyline started the journey well. I rather like Chicago; it is a “crunchy” city, unprepossessing, gorgeous with terrific people and an endless choice of things to do, places to wander and ample to eat and drink.

Thus fortified, I returned to O’Hare for the late evening, Lufthansa departure to Frankfurt. Here the primary benefit of swarms of frequent flyer points came to light as I settled into my bed in the First Class section of the aircraft; there were, in fact, three of us on the upper deck of the 747, none really interested in food, although I think we all prodded at the caviar before retiring for the night, and the eight-hour flight to Europe. Arriving in Frankfurt, I headed to the lounge, showered and prepared to the next three legs of this journey.

Here is the primary drawback of swarms of points; the comfort of the premium cabins is often tempered by the requirement to travel on circuitous routes, and thus I found myself on an early evening flight to Venice, and quick transfer and off to Istanbul before heading to Tbilisi in the middle of the night. Exactly which night it now was, I was not entirely sure.

Landing in Tbilisi at 3.00am is odd; the airport is alive with flights from Munich, Warsaw, Rome, Minsk and all sorts of exotic locales, the place is heaving and the luggage carousels doing sterling service under the weight of the terrific assortment of “stuff” that folks seem to need to travel with.

Onwards. I met my friend Ia and our driver, and off we went on the eight hour run through the plains of Eastern Georgia before turning north toward Tusheti, a remote and inaccessible part of the country, nestled comfortably against the Chechnyan and Dagestani borders.

Now a word here about roads; in particular the vernacular that we attach to descriptions of roads and the comfort of travelling on top of them. Let it be said that Georgian roads are interesting; many well paved and rather pointlessly marked with white lines. Potholes are relatively few in comparison with much of urban Canada, but as one distances oneself from Tbilisi, the surfaces become increasingly variable.

From Tbilisi to Alavani takes a couple of hours, and by this time little green men were starting to jump out at me, and I was happy that I wasn't driving. Ia had thoughtfully brought a pillow for me, and I was wound up on the back seat reasoning that the Mitsubishi Delica that  we were driving was created for Japanese, who are, as a race, considerably smaller (and presumably flexible) than I. It is a fine van, and considerably more robust that first appears; I couldn't help wondering if the water stain on the interior of the roof was a left over from the hundreds of Tsunami-soaked cars, and whether or not I would glow.

Beyond Alavani the road is limited to 4WD vehicles; and apparently bicycles, but they were possibly simply mad. The 70km stretch to Tusheti is an extraordinary road; rutted, potholed, narrow and pushing through some of the most extraordinary scenery one can imagine. By now dawn had sprung, and as the sun came up each corner led to a new sharp intake of breath as the mountains of the Great Caucasus came into view. The road dragged itself up to the AbanoPass, at 3,000 metres, a high point and that morning swirling with mist and sheep. Over the pass, as the road drops into the Chebalaki River Valley, one really starts to understand the beauty of isolation. It becomes quite obvious how the history and anthropology of the region is determined by geography, and it is this very geography that offers protection and possibility has allowed the communities to survive, and indeed thrive.

It has to be noted at this point, that this road was one chosen by the BBC to highlight is a series of the "World's Most Dangerous Roads"!

By now I was confused. The pasteurised world or airports and aeroplanes had within five hours given way to a new century, and an entirely new world; as we dropped into the valley, and the first Tushetian villages of Shtrolta and Khiso came into view.

Attractive clusters of perhaps twenty houses lying together on a distant river bank and accessible only on horseback, they were the epitome of security. Cosy, attractive and utterly timeless the description that I had read about Tusheti “like Switzerland 100 years ago” seemed apt. Communities that have been here since the dark and distant days some thousands of years ago. And, as I was to learn, still very traditional and held together with an interesting fabric woven from strands of religion, respect, strict social mores and a desire to continue a lifestyle that has been lost in so many places.

By now I was a bit tired, and must have lost my presence of mind as I muttered from my (by now) pretzel-shaped position on the back seat about the excitement that riding a horse up here would offer. I was clearly getting a touch hallucinary, and it was with some little relief that we arrive at our wonderful guesthouse in Omalo, and popped like a constrained champagne cork from the van.

This was to be the most moving place that I have ever visited. But that is another story.

Winnipeg to Omalo had taken about forty hours, but is seemed that beyond that temporal measurement I had travelled back in time, and more importantly, I felt that somehow, the earth was moving a little more slowly.