Paganism in vodka valley
After the wonders of Svaneti there was only one place in Georgia that could really capture my imagination: Tusheti. With promises of more beautiful mountain scenery and unique traditions, completely isolated in north-eastern Georgia bordering Dagestan and Chechnya, Tusheti was an exciting if not easy place to visit.. Cut off from the rest of Georgia for 9 months a year when helicopters (in emergencies) are their only means of reaching this place – it is the most challenging and difficult to reach of Georgian destinations. Our experiences in Svaneti had convinced Robert a Dutch tour group leader to join us on our journey, later adding Marc a Spanish photographic journalist who had been trying unsuccessfully for the last two months to visit.
With the expedition team assembled we set off. The rain hampered our attempts to go the first day – an excellent excuse to visit one of the local wineries for a sampling session. Georgia is the birthplace of wine – unfortunately this doesn’t mean that it’s any good; the white is drinkable, but the red tastes like a Ribena-Tequila cocktail. Besides, the English invented football, and look what happened to that – The inventors of buggary are the new champions of Europe!
We hitched back from the winery knowing Georgian hospitality meant the first car to pass would stop and we would be invited back to the driver’s home for food, vodka and more wine. The next day we made our second attempt, but were told the road was blocked for at least the next two days due to landslides caused by the previous days rain. We tried to arrange for some friendly OSCE troops to take us up there on a helicopter but their superiors vetoed the idea. Reaching Tusheti had now become an obsession – we returned to Tbilisi vowing to return once again in an attempt to visit the increasingly mythical land beyond the mountains.
With a few days to burn, Ditte and I decided to do some trekking in the more accessible Truso Gorge, bordering South Ossetia. We arranged for a jeep to take us as far into the gorge as possible. The driver told us that most of the inhabitants of the villages had yet to return from their winter homes in North Ossetia (Russia) so we could pick a house at random to stay instead of camping. We chose the most picturesque farmhouse, and why not? We soon learnt that we couldn’t explore much further up the valley since we were close to the border of South Ossetia. Just before sunset I made an attempt to get as close as possible, walking up the wide valley past crumbling stone towers to the river which marked the natural boundary of where I could and couldn’t go. With no bridge available I waded across the rushing knee-deep ice-cold river as cautiously as I could, finding balance in amongst the stones, even though the cold rendered my feet useless. Once on the other side I scampered up though an ancient graveyard to the top of a hill, sighting the last Georgian border post – the fluttering flag of St. George stating its allegiance. With my camera I curiously zoomed in, to get a closer look and saw that three guys with binoculars were looking directly at me. With shorts, bare feet, pink shirt and camera, I felt sure they would know I was a stupid tourist. I took some landscape pictures and made my way back across the river towards home when a helicopter came swooping past just 10 metres overhead. That wasn’t to be last helicopter to check us out in Truso Gorge, since tensions are running extremely high in this region at the moment, with Russia and the West both positioning themselves politically and militarily in case of another war in the strategically invaluable Caucasus.
Back in our farmhouse we were preparing dinner on the old stove when a man and his teenage son came through the front door. What were they doing here? Surely they didn’t want to stay here as well? We soon discovered that this was actually THEIR house, and they had just come from Russia planning to spend three months here on their farm. They said we could stay as long as we wished, and our ability to communicate via ‘The Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook’ intrigued the old man. I handed him the book and he laid it flat on the table under the flickering candle, his intrigued expression turning to confusion. I leant closer and was shocked to find he was reading the phrase ‘Where are the gay hangouts?’ in the ‘Gay travellers’ section! My proclamations of innocence were eventually accepted and I made a personal vow to remove the offending pages to avoid any future misunderstandings!
Back in Tbilisi the team assembled ready for another onslaught on Tusehti, now with a new member; Paul the Canadian medical student, replacing Robert who had to tend to his flock of 14 tour members for the next three weeks. This time to our barely controllable excitement, we managed to find a jeep at the foot of the mountains that would take us over, with no promise of success. Three hours winding past the Pankisi Gorge and criss-crossing up the side of the mountain we made it to the pass at 2900m. On the north facing side of the mountain there was a lot more snow and ice, but we made the decision that even if we couldn’t continue with the jeep we would walk the remaining 36km to the first village. However, don’t let anyone tell you that Lada Nivas are shite cars – that jeep got us through against all the odds.
On arrival in Omalo a friendly OCSE soldier showed us the way an hour up to the first village of Shanako, where we stayed with a family. The head of the family hadn’t left Tusheti since 1978; he told us there were no pigs in Tusheti because there were too many sacred places, and that nobody from outside the area was allowed to own a house. Over a kerosene lamp-lit dinner we discovered that the first festival (Khatoba) was to begin in just two days, in the far off village of Dartlo. We hired a man and horse the next morning for the four hour hike through the mountains. Half an hour into our hike it appeared we were leaving the trail and heading in a slightly illogical direction? After questioning, the guide informed us that women were not allowed to walk the obvious route due to a sacred shrine. The trip took double the anticipated four hours though nonetheless was extremely scenic; over mountain passes, through wooded gorges and wild meadows, passing several Tusheti villages, intermittently with and without crumbling stone towers and inhabitants. At around 6pm we arrived in Dartlo, just 10km from the Chechen border, our destination beautifully illuminated by the warm afternoon summer sun. It was everything we had dreamed of – we were rapturous!
We awoke at 8.30 am the next day in anticipation of the first days festivities – there were two men sharing our breakfast table and so the drinking began a little earlier than expected; after a full two hours of chacha and vodka toasts, we managed to wriggle free for a well earned siesta. A very personable man in military fatigues, brandishing an AK47, awaked us. He told us to make our way up to the sacred shrine or ‘Khati’ on top of a hill. Women weren’t allowed near the shrine so my girlfriend had to stay 50 metres away with all the other impure humans. At the shrine there was a complete pagan free for all – bell ringing by the local ‘dekanos’ (soothsayer), shouting, Chacha-drinking, candle lighting and machine gun firing. After about an hour of this, three sacred sheep with ribbons tied in their horns were bought over and the soothsayer ceremonially burnt a portion of the wool between their horns. More bell ringing, shouting, gun firing and drinking… the sheep’s time had come; one at a time they were slaughtered – their blood sprayed liberally as an offering on a smaller shrine. The three sheep were then hung on the shrine and expertly butchered… more drinking, shooting and bell ringing followed – their testicles were cut into bite size pieces and barbecued – as men we had the privilege of eating the testicles, while the women were sent over the liver. The rest of the meat was to be eaten at the next days feast. Everyone was pretty drunk at this point, and many made their way over to the women for wine toasting, singing and dancing until nightfall descended. Some of the men remained with the soothsayer at the shrine all night to guard the sacred fire until morning.
The next day a huge banquet was laid out with local food, barbequed sheep, wine, beer and the ubiquitous chacha. What followed were several hours of more intense drinking, eating, dancing, singing and a traditional bareback horse race through the village – The winner of which received the fleeces of the three sacrificial sheep. During our stay It felt like we were participants rather than observers, our presence adding to the atmosphere; we danced, sang, fired a few rounds – and on top of the countless chacha and vodka toasts – to prove our metal we even undertook the challenge of a 750ml horn full of wine each in one motion. We were totally drunk but so was everyone else – and thanks to the marvels of modern technology I have several videos and countless pictures to jog my hazy memories. It was all simply amazing; a timeless pagan festival deep in the Caucasus. The combination of Vodka and culturally-spectacular-sensory-bombardment was quite something!
Modern Georgia is a country in transition, trying to come to terms with 70 years of Communism, numerous civil wars and the hiccupping onslaught of Capitalist modernisation. In places it seems like a scene from Orwell’s ‘1984’. In stark contrast then to the mountainous regions holding onto a timeless pagan era isolated from modern ideologies and religious dogma; certainly like no other country in Europe.
My month in Georgia has come to an end – tomorrow we are off to Azerbaijan.