Deep down on my Bucket List of Places&Experiences from since I remember had been a horseback riding adventure. But not just a ride on the beach fantasy. No, a bigger, longer adventure, like cattle herding in Argentina, or Mongolia’ steppe on horseback, or an African horse safari.
When young I have done a lot of horseback riding, even dressage and parkour, so I am pretty sure in the saddle. I also made sure our girls as kids had horseback riding lessons and whenever there were opportunities to introduce them to the joy of riding out in nature, I did so. My best memory of riding together was in South Africa when we went to a private reserve near Stellenbosch and galloped amongst zebras and giraffes. Being on a horse you have a better, off the ground perspective, but what is even more wonderful is that the animals don’t see you as a threatening human, but just a strange animal, so you can get really close to them.
Different horse breeds also give you a different experience. At this point I don’t really want to get on a spoiled, finicky, oversensitive Western horse any more, because I had such fabulous experiences with other breeds. Galloping on the beach on a Berber horse in Morocco is absolutely thrilling, and so in a different way climbing up a steep mountain path on a small, incredibly surefooted Tusheti horse.
Last year I had such a horse for an afternoon in the Caucasus when my husband and I travelled around Republic of Georgia. It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me and when we returned from the Tusheti mountains to the winery where we stayed, I mentioned my horse dream to the owners. “I wish I could spend a week crossing the Tusheti mountains on a horse.”
“And why not?”, said the winemaker. “I have a number of horses up in the mountains and I can have one of my cousins take you. I only wish I could go with you, for we, Tushetians, are crazy about horses. Horses are in our blood. We keep herds of horses, just because we love them.”
That close relationship showed in the way the horses were treated in Tusheti. All of them, without exception, looked healthy, well fed and not afraid of humans. On the opposite, a horse would happily approach you on its own to be touched, instead of flinching in fear if you extended your hand. There were horses everywhere in Tusheti: in the villages, pastures, or just roaming freely around the mountains. Some were used as transport animals to bring supplies to far away villages where no cars could reach. Even if the equipment was simple, much care was taken that the horses were comfortable and their hides protected by layers of homemade woolen padding. I very much appreciate that as there are many places in the world where horses, but especially their relatives – donkeys are terribly maltreated. Some horses were used for the local cowboys to herd the sheep up the mountain in springtime and down the mountain at the beginning of fall. Even the littlest children were fearless around horses and clamoring to be close and kids as young as 7 or 8 could be seen trotting around bareback and alone.
On our first trip to Georgia, by a strange and wonderful coincidence we met a well travelled and adventurous Czech couple in Georgian Svaneti mountains. When I mentioned to them my amazing horse experience and my dream of going back for longer, they said, “We really want to see the Tusheti mountains and we have horses at home and we would be thrilled to go riding with you in the mountains.”
Well, people say one thing, but then when it comes to it…
No, this time everything fell in place easily and perfectly. I even got to borrow riding breeches and a riding helmet from my new friend Miša. We decided that we were too old to ride all day and camp at night, so we came up with an alternative itinerary where we would stay in two different guest houses and make shorter day trips to various villages in different valleys. And so it happened that a year later the three of us (my husband not being a horse guy and having had back surgery) flew to Tbilisi, jumped in a waiting car and presented ourselves at the winery again. The owner checked our itinerary, tweaked it somewhat and called his cousin to choose the best horses for us when we show up in the mountains.
We hired the same reliable driver with a 4 wheel drive van that Mirek and I had the year before and my friends Miša and Jirka experienced the thrill of driving one of the craziest (and supposedly the most dangerous) unpaved roads in the world over the 2826 m high, Abano pass, this time mysteriously wrapped in fog. We brought along a few bottles of excellent Georgian cognac as Miša is very afraid of heights. As is the custom on that road we toasted the many people who fell to their death, the last victims just a month before with a lousy truck full of families driven by an inexperienced young driver.
The drive was easier than our autumnal ascend the year before, if hotter. With the summer still lingering, we only encountered one flock of sheep coming down the mountain, bringing the car to a standstill with the torrent of thick white wool flowing by. On the other side of the pass we went straight to Upper Omalo and the place we stayed at the year before -Gordilla Guest House, where we were welcomed like family. It might not seem much, but within limited competition it has a number of advantages. It is in the middle of the little community with the view of the impressive defensive towers. It is only a year old with bright, if simple rooms, with new beds, private bathrooms with hot showers run on solar panels and it has the best food served on a terrace that overlooks the little square where local life happens. It even has USB phone chargers and a decent WiFi. Impressive for such a remote location!
Our horse guide came to introduce himself and we were a bit concerned as he looked awfully young, but he had a smattering of English (in the manner of: road – no good – horse) and the horses and equipment looked decent. My friends used to the fancy saddles were a bit taken aback, but soon they were glad to have the extra padding after hours spent in the saddle. My reins weren’t even leather, but a simple road, but the horses were so well behaved and cooperative that it really didn’t matter. Only once I had to really use the reins to hold back my horse at a steady galloping pace while our valiant leader let his horse loose and went flying like an invading horde of Gingis Khan!
So yes, horse back riding dream…did it come true? Pretty much. We spent enough time in the saddle that we felt soreness in all sorts of body parts. At times we felt as pioneering explorers coming to the villages that time and people forgot. Some were at the border of Dagestan and some at the border of Chechnya, but all in spectacular settings. The only notion of the border being a hand made sign…We had the freedom to gallop to our hearts’ content. The most memorable was galloping above and along a merrily flowing river Pirikiti Alazan, surrounded by tall mountains, flocks of sheep and herds of curious horses. We let our horses munch on fresh green grass and drink from clear mountain streams, cold rivers, and tall waterfalls that were flowing everywhere. We sat high up in the saddle gobsmacked with 360 degrees views while golden eagles flew in the blue skies. If the year before I reveled in the yellows and reds of the fall, this year the summer meadows rich with many familiar Alpine flowers of Caucasus variations in full bloom were a colorful sight. We certainly reveled in the admiring looks of some other travelers that we passed on our way. We did wish that we did not have to share the unpaved roads with others, some cars and a few very loud and annoying motorcycles. But the mountainsides on the most were far too steep to take shortcuts through the woods. The few times we did we marveled at the stamina and sure-footedness of our steeds climbing up the rocks. Only once I felt we were taking a dangerous risk when we rode to the village of Kvavlo on a path so narrow and steep that I seriously thought of just closing my eyes and holding on for dear life while the horse found his way down to the river on his own. Of course, once he did and we crossed the stream and were in the sacred village where a sheep had been sacrificed that day, it was all seen as a thrilling adventure. Still, I was glad we took a different even steeper, but wider path back, even if I had to dismount and walk leading the horse behind me. For me an ideal trip should have nature, culture and people. We could not have wished for a more majestic and untouched nature and the people were so welcoming and generous. It is not unusual to be invited to partake of a juicy watermelon or a glass of thick red Georgian wine. I was also very pleased to meet dr. Irakli, living in the village of Bochorna, the highest settlement in Europe at 2345m, who has been ministrating to villagers all his life. We rode to the village of Bochorna and tied our horses by the one inhabited house.
“Dr. Irakli, I presume!” I greeted the man with white hair.
“Niet doktor, starec Irakli,” he responded in Russian. (Not doctor, old man Irakli).
“Niet starec, slavni Irakli,” I retorted. (Not old, famous Irakli). A happy smile spread on his face. I just wish we had a better supply of words so I could hear more fascinating stories. I did get the gist of the one where he went to administer to a patient on his home made skies in the winter and got buried in an avalanche. He lead me to the holy place- kheti, the shrine with white stone above the village. These white stones of all shapes and sizes are a strong presence everywhere and a reminder of the old religion that predates Christianity and coexists with it to this day. they are also used in construction of tall towers, to protect from bad spirits and from cracks in construction. Legend says if you remove the white stones, the whole tower will collapse.
With the help of the locals I found some wonderful stones with pictographs on house. This one is connected to the story of Jason and the Argonauts, who came to Georgia in search of the Golden Fleece. As always, the myths reveal a lot about the real history and life of people in olden times. While the hero story of a band of brave men overcoming impossible challenges, slaying dragons etc. is interesting in its own right (we all love a good fantasy), I like to dig deeper. These myths tell of common method of fratricide to get the throne and of powerful women priestesses/sorceresses without whose help the brawny hero could not succeed. In this case it is Medea who helps Jason after she falls in love with him through the meddling of Goddess Hera. She even kills her own brother to be able to escape with Jason to his homeland, bearing him many children only to be discarded for a younger princess. Her revenge is swift, sending a poisoned wedding dress to her rival. I just wonder why the heck didn’t she send a poisoned tuxedo to Jason?
As for the Golden Fleece – the historical fact lies in the gold collecting method of people in Georgian mountains by putting a sheepskin (fleece) into the rivers and trapping gold particles in the wool. Could it have happened right here? The Dartlo village tower you see was our home for the night. Not as fancy as our Omalo accommodations,but a good jumping point to the most impressive mountain views of the whole trip in the last village of Girevi.
On the ride in we met fierce looking children.
They were celebrating in great fun the Color Day, the day summer colors change into Autumn colors. The children go into the woods to pick wild blueberries and paint their faces with the juices. I wonder what pagan ritual that is based on? The influence of orthodox Christianity is not that strong in the mountains and the churches are very few and far between.
And they of course heavily borrow from the mythology of yore.
Saint George slaying the dragon or is it Jason? On a beautiful horse no less.
Our own horse adventure of mythical proportions coming to an end, all I can say is that truly, madly: