Georgia: On the up with the kings of the hills

The High Caucasus of Georgia are so remote they offer a haven for rebels on the run. But they are also home to uniquely welcoming mountain communities. Robin Pagnamenta gets on track in a trekker's paradise

It seemed a strange place to leave a pile of old scaffolding poles: 3,000 metres above sea level in the Caucasus mountains, surrounded by snowy peaks. The nearest habitation was a shack a good 20 miles away in the remote Georgian village of Shatili, hard on the Chechen border.

"Perhaps they're not scaffolding poles," I said, prodding tentatively with a foot.

Rusted and covered with weeds, the home-made rocket-launchers had clearly been lying there for some time. During the late 1990s, Chechen rebels had used this part of Georgia as a safe haven in the war against the Russians. "Why don't you take one home as a souvenir?" suggested my guide, Misha Mindiashvili.

Remotest Georgia is not the most conventional holiday destination, and this sort of thing is one reason why. The former Soviet Republic of four million people tucked in a mountainous fold between Russia and Turkey still suffers an image problem; grinding poverty, simmering civil conflicts and strife in neighbouring Chechnya have not exactly helped.

But beyond the headlines (and the odd rusty rocket-launcher) Georgia is an adventurer's paradise. Politically, the country is as stable as it has been at any time in the past 15 years.

I had come for two weeks of exploring on horseback and on foot in the High Caucasus. With 12 peaks loftier than anything the Alps have to offer, this range is home to rare wildlife and a tradition of hospitality that can at times be overwhelming.

In theory, it is possible to use public transport and find your own accommodation in Georgia; but in practice, if you are planning to head out to the sticks this can be time-consuming, problematic and, in some places, poten-tially dangerous. Some parts, for example, are closed military zones, while others have a reputation for banditry, so it is advisable to check with the Foreign Office before you travel.

A far easier option is to find a local guide to assist you. Few people speak English, and in remoter regions locals speak only obscure dialects of Georgian, itself a unique and ancient tongue with virtually no similarity to any other living language.

We first set out from Georgia's crumbling 19th-century capital of Tbilisi on a two-day jeep ride to Lagodekhi, a national park on the border with Azerbaijan and southern Russia. In the foothills of the Caucasus we hired horses and rode up through thick forest into the mountains, accompanied by Misha and Soso, a ruddy-faced local park ranger with a well-developed taste for brandy. Our tough little Caucasian horses coped well, but at times the steep gradient forced us to dismount and lead them, their hot muzzles panting close behind.

After several hours of steady climbing we broke the treeline.The sun setting, we reached a rickety, tin-roofed Soviet weather station that was to serve as our home for the next three days.

In Soviet times, Georgia was a favourite destination for visitors from across the USSR. Leaders from Stalin to Gorbachev had holiday villas there, and Lagodekhi was a popular hunting ground for Politburo bigwigs. But after the region declared independence in 1991, the tourists vanished as the country descended into chaos. Now, as Georgia struggles back to its feet with a new leadership and ambitions to join the EU, the visitors are returning in a trickle, as likely to be speaking German or English as Russian or Ukrainian.

After supper came the customary toasting session in whatever language we could muster, as Soso had brought several bottles of rough, home-made brandy. It was fun while it lasted, but I awoke the next morning with a cracking hangover and was utterly incapable of getting back on a horse until midday.

When we did set off the absence of trees afforded breathtaking views across the Alazani plain, Georgia's winemaking region. But suddenly a trio of men appeared, running towards us clutching Kalashnikov rifles. It was an alarming sight until we realised they were Georgian soldiers - the only people we were to meet in Lagodekhi - manning the frontier with Russia. After radioing their base they waved us on, and that evening, back at the weather station, we drank local wine and toasted the soldiers, friendship and peace.

After a day's recuperation back in Tbilisi, we set off on the second leg of our trip, driving through forests and beside raging, muddy torrents toward the remote region of Khevsureti on the Chechen border. An hour into the journey the road became little more than a stony track clinging to the side of a ravine, while below we spotted the burnt-out shells of vehicles that had lost their grip and tumbled down the hillside.

In the Fifties, the Soviets forced the Khevsurs, proud fighters who still wore chain mail until well into the 20th century, to abandon their traditional stone villages, perched on crags to protect them from raids by Chechen tribesmen, and move to new collective farms in the valleys. Khevsur culture was virtually destroyed.

But a few diehards remain and, five hours after setting off from Tbilisi, we reached Gudani, a remote settlement where ageing babushkas (grannies), faces wrinkled by decades of high-altitude sunlight, shuffled around in the shadow of nearby Mount Chaukhi.

After a lunch of khachapuri, a kind of cheesy bread, we set off again, winding higher and higher, before we reached a pass at around 2,900m before making camp.

The following morning we rose early and set off on foot with a packhorse through the pass, eagles soaring high above us on the thermals. Our descent was treacherous - we had to negotiate small glaciers and steep icefalls before we arrived at a curious-looking stone shrine. The Khevsurs, who communicate in verse, hold pagan beliefs, and entry points to their communities are marked by these religious towers.

This was Khakhabo, a tiny cluster of 11th-century ruins. It had no road access, let alone electricity or telephones, and apparently no people either, but after half an hour or so a swarthy youth appeared and helped us rein in our horse, which had broken loose.

Our helper seemed a little shy of strangers, and it was only later we understood why. Khakhabo is only seven miles from Chechnya, and the surrounding villages used to serve as a hideout for Chechen rebels.

The lad's coyness did not last long, and he and his father came to share supper, excitedly telling us we were the first people to travel down the gorge this year. We also learnt the young man was getting married - to a kidnapped bride.

Once more the toasting went on until late before, as a mark of respect, we were honoured with a volley of gunshots from the family sniper's rifle. The following morning, a breakfast of cheese and bread was washed down with three goat's horns of mountain vodka before we set off back to Tbilisi, and home. But one day my road will lead back to Georgia...

THE COMPACT GUIDE

GETTING THERE: Flights to Tbilisi with British Airways start from £453. Details: ba.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Robin Pagnamenta visited Georgia with Georgian Adventures (gata.ge) in Tbilisi, an independent tour agency. For more details: 00 995 99 552 923, michaelchalbert@hotmail.com; or 00 995 99 535 589, minidiashvili@ hotmail.com

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