A holiday rep who is always armed to the teeth

Week in the Life: Bakar, Mountain Guide
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WE ARE Bakar's first, and almost certainly his last clients of the year. Very few Western tourists are interested in riding through this part of the world, where the peaks, ravines and cascading mountain streams of Georgia melt into those of Chechnya.

Not that Bakar has much trouble keeping busy. In the past, he fought with the Chechens against the Russians. Now he works in a nature reserve. But for the next three days he will be our guide on horseback.

We meet him on Tuesday, after four hours in a jeep negotiating the hairpin bends and potholes of the dirt road that winds north from Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, into the wild heart of the Caucasus mountain range that stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian.

The road has led us to Shatili, a hillside hamlet from which, for 800 years, the people guarded their valley from invaders. Bakar, 36, appears equipped for a similar task. He is wearing camouflaged fatigues and dark glasses, has a watchful expression, and is carrying a nine-inch dagger.


WEDNESDAY: We set off, a party of five with Bakar in front, and skirt the Chechen border, one of many seams in this turbulent region where Christianity and Islam meet, and guns and narcotics covertly pass back and forth.

We ride past the idling border guards - lonely figures on a hillside - through meadows ablaze with orange poppies and buttercups, past waterfalls and groves of poplars and silver birches.

Bakar carries a Kalashnikov. Here, in the small Georgian region of Khevsuretia, we are far from main stamping ground of Chechnya's hostage- takers on the plains around Grozny. But, judging by the number of skins draped on the wooden balconies of Shatili, there are bears about.

His dagger, or kinzhal, traditionally carried by men in the Caucasus mountains and a favourite among Chechen fighters, is the more useful weapon. Bakar uses it for everything from slicing cheese to cutting wood for the camp fire, which he builds after we pitch our tent for the night beside a river.

His face falls when he sees the vegetables and dried soup which we have brought to cook over it. Our cook is a vegan.

To survive life in the mountains, you need meat, he explains. Sometimes he even eats it raw.

By now he knows we are not the world's best equipped adventurers; one reason we are ill-supplied is because we made the naive mistake of expecting Shatili to have a shop.


THURSDAY: The kinzhal is out again, this time to strip down some twigs on which to skewer breakfast: two freshly caught trout from the river.

Bakar mutters something about a difficult route ahead, but says he is sure we will get through. An hour later, as we gingerly pick our way along an eight-inch wide shale path, above a sheer 250ft drop to a seething river below, his words sound thoroughly unconvincing.

For two hours, we plunge in and out of streams, clatter across narrow wooden bridges, and weave along narrow tracks through high, deadly, ravines. He tries to reassure me again: "Don't worry. The horses know the way. You don't have to do anything." This is just as well; the last time I was on a horse was when the Beatles were recording Abbey Road.

Bakar was educated under the Soviet system and, like most Georgians, speaks fluent Russian. It is clear he is educated; he has read translations of Walter Scott. But, like many up here, he far prefers the self-sufficient mountain life.

The problem with the rest of Georgia, he tells us, is that it is becoming a nation of traders. He prefers the warrior tradition. "Here I am my own master. I answer to no one." As we rise higher, through 10,000ft, we come across patches of snow. It is growing cold as we pitch camp.


FRIDAY: Two Chechens - one in dark glasses and a bandanna - and two Georgians in a truck passed by last night and gave Bakar a pair of combat boots. It would be a lie to say I wasn't anxious, but Bakar seems unworried.

We ride home. What happens, I ask, if the Russians one day try to sweep the area back into a reassembled empire? "That won't happen," he replies quietly. "There would be a terrible war." Bakar, man of the mountains, would no doubt be in the front line.

Phil Reeves