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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map