Showing posts with label Tusheti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tusheti. Show all posts

Friday, October 31, 2014

Georgia in the Caucasus: Travelling with Journalists

As you probably know, Georgia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, is one of my favourite countries in the world. Tbilisi, its capital enchants, Svaneti and Tusheti are two mountainous regions beyond description and the wine-growing region of Kakheti and its gorgeous community of Sighnaghi are utterly wonderful.

However, one sometimes gets to believe one’s own rhetoric, and faced with the critical eyes of an audience unseduced by its charms sometimes one’s loves shatter and fade.

And such was the worry when I agreed to arrange a group tour of Georgia for a dozen North American journalists last month.

We met at Tbilisi airport in the wee hours of the morning; most flights to/from Europe whizz in and out between 3.00 and 5.00am, and although the Georgians are quite used to this eccentricity, it comes as a bit of a shock to newcomers. However, whisked off to our hotel, and allowed a restorative six hours sleep, we were duly shaken from our reveries and taken for our morning (well, noon by now) wine-tasting.

Alaverdi Monastery

The wine is good too; with a history of making wine in clay qvevris for 8,000 years, they have learned a thing or two, and it was a joy to see the cheeks of my hard-nosed scribes start to shine with their new found friends in Georgian wines.
Wine is to Georgians so much more than an alcoholic drink. It is one of the very strands that combine with religion, language and history to create the fabric of this most interesting and hospitable country. The vine is a symbol of the nation; when Christianity was originally brought to Georgia in the fourth century by the remarkable woman, St. Nino, her cross was made from twisted vines. She must have been a remarkable personality, for the Queen of the time, Queen Nana requested a meeting, and converted to this new religion, and Georgians have never wavered in their belief.
Ikalto Academy

The next days were a most extraordinary journey; we visited ranches, cities, monasteries, convents, a 12th centurywine-making academy, a museum to Stalin, the ancient capital of Mtskheta, the mountains of Svaneti, the UNESCO heritage village of Ushguli in the high Caucasus mountains, a partly-restored Soviet Military Spa (where we slept for a night, and delighted in the ephemera of the bar/disco), souvenir shops, two national museums and a bath house. We rode with the best guide in the region, Tamara Natenadze on a tour organised with my colleagues from the best travel company in the region, Living Roots.

The incomparable Tamara

And we had fun. We had surprises, and above all, we had a dozen journalists who were quite astonished that Georgia had been able to remain under the radar for so long. I reminded that that they were, in fact, the radar, and that was why they were here. And so, after a few toasts, and promises of endless friendships and everlasting joy, they left to ponder a most remarkable week.

Georgia is a remarkable country; it has every asset that a destination could want from active winter skiing, both heli-skiing and the more conventional variety to a culture that is fascinating and accessible. It offers opportunities to travel on high mountain roads in 4WD vehicles, go white-water rafting on a number of great rivers and enjoy fine accommodation and a bewildering variety of incredible food and wines.

Georgia is truly a destination to be visited now; it is ready, and is the destination that we all want to visit on our worldly wanderings!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tusheti - The Great Caucasus Mountains (Part Two)

“Why is Max here?” asked Bishop David Makharadze on the night that we arrived; his questions became ever more pointed, and on the final morning, I heard his voice from behind ask my colleague John “what faith does Max believe in?”

Pondering this question over my morning boiled egg, I decided to take a defensive position. “Ten years at an Anglican boarding school knocked any sense of dogma and religion out of me.” “Ah, he said gently, the Anglicans lost their way.”

An hour and a half later, and by now sitting at his table, I realised that Bishop David was a truly remarkable man. His answers to my questions about the difference between the social binding of the Georgian and Armenian Orthodox churches (well, conversation was slacking, and I wanted to appear to be alert), were met with a unequivocal answer: “The Armenians betrayed their people and their beliefs in the 5th century, so how would one ever trust such a church to hold fast the dogma of the church today?” Well, he had a point, I thought … and he continued, “The church in Georgia today has remained unwavering to the correct and original dogma of the church, it is trusted and it is alive”.

And he is not wrong.

It is, at first glance, difficult to understand how this tiny corner of the world has remained peaceful, intact and culturally strong. There are, of course, many isolated areas of the world that have not managed to do so; indeed, Georgia as a country has faced the last century as an occupied nation and then one in civil war, yet its character has remained defiant and strong.

The Tush survival has been a factor of many elements and among the strongest is the system of land ownership, and its social effect. Dating back to the dawn of time, Tush families own land and simply do not sell it. It gets passed down through generations completely undisturbed by outsiders arriving other than to marry into a family. As a result, there are no businesses from outside; no developers able to buy land and start to chip away at the social and economic fabric. It is also a part of their heritage for those who have left to return at least once a year to the land, and this constant connection has maintained ties that elsewhere have been broken.

I am still unable to really process my impressions of Tusheti; I was only there, of course, for a brief time, and gained insight to only a flake of Tushetian life. I saw in that brief period, I think, a hint of what contentment can be. Happiness, once defined as “living in harmony with the order of things” is nowhere more apparent than here. The respect for social order allows the communities to live harmoniously and the maintenance of ancient traditions, no more evident than in the superb horsemanship of the Tush people, maintain a link from the past to the future.

The roads, on the other hand, are a different matter. From our Near Feast experience in Girevi we crawled back over the ruts and through the grooves to our hotel, the wonderful Guesthouse Shina in Omalo; there, conversation, marvellous food, wine and the gentle rhythm of village life awaited. Dinner, a traditional (and, it has to be said, plentiful) feast each night, washed down with some remarkable wines that our friend John brought from his winery, Pheasant's Tears, in Sighanagi was a treat each night; and let me tell you that John knows a thing or two about wine making.

John specialises in “Natural Wines”. These are basically the juice from stomped grapes poured into a large underground clay pot (a “qvevri”) with some skins and wood, fermented for a couple of weeks and then transferred to another qvevri for a further four to six months.

This process is augmented by the use of a series of most eccentric and ancient wooden tools, the specific uses of I wouldn’t care to ponder. The resulting wines however are simply delicious; and the extraordinary variety of Georgian grapes - some 450 at least - spare the palate a continuation of the overdose of our common Chardonnays, Pinots and Merlots.

They are wonderful wines indeed, and washed down our dinners a treat.

The guesthouse is lovely; it offers accommodation to about twenty travellers in comfortable bedrooms, with a mildly eccentric electrical delivery system adding to the fun. The hosts are delightful, the hospitality unmatched and the views of both the distant mountains and the nearby forts are simply inspiring. It certainly epitomises the ideals of a guesthouse, and I can’t wait to return.

I didn’t actually know I was going to go to Tusheti until about three or four days before I arrived when I received and email from my friend and business colleague Ia. I was travelling to Georgia for a couple of day’s meetings with Ia and John to look at some projects that we are working on, and it was decided (by her or them, I am not quite sure), that Tusheti would be a good place to meet and ponder. This pretty typical of Ia; apart from being the most dazzlingly beautiful woman in the Caucasus, she is an imaginative and very creative travel-type; her persistence in trying to sell Georgia to the outside world was both amusing and successful, and now she is a partner in a terrific local travel company with whom I love to work.

I had a hard timing processing Tusheti; the grandeur, the isolation, the strength of community, the air, the hospitality, the history and architecture, the horsemanship and the serenity. I still have a hard time, but know that I would like to return, and next time stay for longer, and spend more time in the smaller villages, and perhaps even ride a horse.

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.