“See those?” Giorgi points up to the small black figures walking up and down the jagged ridge, “That’s Chechnya. That’s the border patrol.”
A patch of blue sky peers down onto the viridian slopes of the bare mountainside before it disappears behind the grey, cotton clouds. A cool wind brushes against my skin and carries the smell of burnt wood and charcoal from my denim jacket I had placed over the barbecue last night to dry it out. I’m slightly hung over from the copious amounts of chacha, a Georgian moonshine made out of discarded grape parts that burned the raw skin of my throat.
“Chechnya?” I repeat. My mouth is dry and sticky, and I wondered if I heard correctly. We can’t possibly be here on the Chechen border.
“Kho, yes, Chechnya,” he affirms.
I grew up with the news about the Chechen conflict in the 90s. I was too young to understand it at the time, but I’m still haunted by the images of war torn Grozny: of the dead victims and buildings torn apart by shrapnel.
In the Argun Valley on the Georgian side of the border in the Greater Caucasus Mountains, the Chechen frontier overlooks an untouched landscape of metamorphic mountains. A palette of green, coloured by grass-covered mountains and a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees, is set against the browns and greys of the rocks – this is definitely not the Chechnya I remember from the BBC broadcasts.
Our group scatters about the Anatori crypts. I peer through the tiny barred windows of the small stone houses to the browned and aged bones lying in a disordered heap.
“Was this a cemetery?” I ask.
“They were sick people,” says Giorgi, “They came here to die willingly, to stop the disease from spreading. It was a part of Khevsur culture.”
I swallow and look away. What was it like to come here to die alone? Even with the beauty of this region, all I can think about is the silence rippled by the bones rattling in the draft next to me.
The region of Khevsureti is tucked away in the Caucasus Mountains in the north of Georgia. Traversing up the “roads” made out of bulldozed mountain debris pressed down by tyre tracks, it is easy to see why the pass is closed during the winter. I find it terrifying enough during the summer.
Seven hours from Tbilisi, our marshrutka, a Soviet era minibus, sluggishly climbed up the Datvis-Jvaris pass through thick fog, before carrying us down narrow and unstable dirt tracks running over stretches of mountainsides coloured in shades of brilliant emerald. I have been in Georgia for just over a week and I am hungry to see much of the country. However, no amount of preparatory guidebook reading had readied me for Georgian roads and driving.
The sky turned grey and the rain hammered against the bus. At this point, my legs tingled and my rear end went numb. The road curved into hairpin bends, running parallel to the white water river, until after another hour, we arrived at Shatili, the largest settlement in Khevsureti.
Fifty defensive towers, some dating as far back as the 6th century, make up the village. The dark brown stone and mortar towers cling to the sides of the rocky outcrop tainted by the heavy rain and water trickling down the inclined streets. Many towers are abandoned, and the population, comprising a dozen or so families, reside in the modern wooden houses dotting the perimeter. Some towers are restored, distinguishable by their wicker balconies.
The water seeped through my denim jacket within seconds, and I fought against the slippery steps carrying us up into the fortified village, while Georgian soldiers stared at us curiously from under their camouflage caps.
Our guest house is located inside a restored tower. The rooms are basic. The wide gaps between the wooden beams give us very little privacy, but I’m surprised, and grateful, that we have generator-supplied electricity, since I don’t even have mobile phone coverage here.
At dusk, the smell of barbecue smoke flittered over the towers. Our guides had prepared a traditional Georgian supra, a feast, under a wooden canopy at the top of the village. Our selection of Georgian food included salad served up with a walnut dressing, tangy local sheep’s cheese, barbecued meat, Georgian flatbread with a chewy bite, stewed vegetables, and naturally washed down with litres of Georgian wine.
Niko, our driver, pulled out a plastic water bottle filled with clear liquid.
“Tonight, we will take the Georgian tradition of toasting,” Giorgi translated.
This tradition is usually undertaken with Georgian wine, or worse, chacha, a homemade grape seed spirit that should come with a health warning. My liver cried as Niko poured two fingers of chacha into my plastic cup.
“I want to make a toast to Georgia, this beautiful country: garmajos,” Giorgi said before downing his glass.
“Gamarjos,” we repeated in unison. The chacha burned my throat. It reminds me of pálinka, a Hungarian fruit spirit my grandfather used to force on my British father every time he visited my mother’s family. At least the heat from the chacha cuts out the damp cold.
I am grateful my hangover isn’t worse as we stroll around the Anatori Crypts. The others aren’t so lucky; Giorgi is wearing sunglasses to cover his red eyes.
We head back to the bus. Niko is peeling a mushroom he just picked off the roadside.
“Is good,” he says while holding out a piece of raw mushroom for me to try.
My stomach curdles at the thought; I’ve already had difficulty stomaching the khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread, for breakfast and it still clogs my arteries. I politely decline.
After bundling into the bus we drive to Mutso, the last Khevsur village accessible by car.
Our road carries us across streams and over dirt tracks laden with small boulders of rock we have to push into the river by hand. The trail leads past abandoned villages and wild marijuana fields.
“Is it true that the people are still pagan?” I ask as the bus pulls towards the base of the abandoned city. I look up through the window, but all I can see are jutting sharp rocks.
“Yes, there are shrines with animal antlers, these are offerings here. Sacrifices. Khevsurs worship the pagan gods, but they’re Christian too. It has changed very little here, even during the Soviet regime. Khevsur men still wore chain mail until the 1930s.”
The rocky mountain shadows the right bank of the transparent, fast-flowing Andakistskali River. Giorgi points to a narrow neck in the stream.
“If you want to fill up with water, do it here, it comes from the glacier.”
I bend down and hold my bottle over the small cascade. The water tastes sweet and refreshingly cold. I glance up to the mountain, and I can make out the medieval fortress crowning the top, built onto the vertical terraces of the rocky plain. Mountains close in the valley, whose snowy peaks are already located in Chechnya.
Climbing up, we pass a single wooden house.
“The last village before Chechnya,” says Giorgi, “One family lives here.”
We’re halfway up the mountain. I stop to breathe and rub my sore calves. Stone towers grow out of the mountainside against a backdrop of green, vertical slopes moving back into the valley. I hold my breath and I’m inspired to don Elvish armour and go exploring.
There is no safe path to the citadel, only tracks scattered with debris and overgrowing plants. Mutso was once a major stronghold in medieval Georgia, but its towers are abandoned and open up into the sky.
In the West, this hike would have broken every single health and safety rule imaginable.
I scale the sheer rock face with weathered grooves for my feet and small dusty patches to link my fingers into. I slip. My heart plunges against my chest. I make the mistake of looking down to the pieces of rock bouncing off the mountainside into the valley below and I grip onto the flaking rock face. I exhale and close my eyes. I’m almost there.
Trembling, I reach the top. I crash against the side of the shrine and the pointed edges dig into my back. I gulp down the contents of my water bottle and scan the surrounding valley. I fall in love with the towering misty mountains covered with snow, the two tiny stone outposts that mark the border and the sunny patches on the steep valley carpeted with chartreuse green grass punctuated by glacial streams. The whisper of the wind and the call of a lone eagle is the only sound beyond the chatter of our group. Finally my breathing steadies and I realise every bruise on my body, even the risk getting here, is all worth being a part of Khevsureti, even just for a moment.