Exploring The Caucasus Mountains On The Chechen Border: It’s Not What You’d Think
Small black figures walk up and down the jagged ridge. A patch of blue sky peers down onto the blue-green 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.
“See those?” Giorgi points to the ridge and takes a drag from his cigarette. “That’s Chechnya. That’s the border patrol. “
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, and 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, where pieces of shale flake off onto empty roads. A palette of green, colored 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. I can’t imagine coming here willingly to die alone, even amidst the beauty of this region.
Khevsureti is tucked away in the Caucasus Mountains in the north of Georgia and is only accessible during the summer. Traversing up the “roads” made out of bulldozed mountain debris pressed down by tire tracks, it is easy to see why the pass is closed during the winter. Personally, 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 in thick fog, before carrying us down narrow and unstable dirt tracks running over stretches of mountainsides colored 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 graveled roads are empty, and the only sign of civilization manifests in the crumbling medieval towers that blend into the landscape.
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 whitewater river, until after another hour, we arrived at Shatili, the largest settlement in Khevsureti.
50 defensive towers make up the village, and some even date as far back as the 6th Century. The stone and mortar towers climb up the side of the hill in dark brown tones, 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 looked at us curiously from under their camouflage caps.
Our guesthouse is located inside a restored tower, and 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.
In the evening, the smell of barbecue smoke flittered over the towers. Our guides 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 — 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 toasting tradition,” Giorgi translated.
The Georgian tradition involves toasting with wine, or worse, chacha, a Georgian moonshine made from grape seeds 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.
“Garmarjos,” 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 chacha takes the bite off the damp cold.
I am grateful for my minimal hangover 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 for breakfast, Georgian cheese bread, which still clogs my arteries. I politely decline.
We bundle into the bus and drive to Mutso, the last Khevsur village accessible by car.
Our road takes the marshrutka across streams and into dirt tracks with small boulders of rock we push into the river by hand. The trail leads past abandoned villages and wild marijuana fields.
Niko grabs a stalk of cannabis and passes it back to us.
“Pull a leaf off and rub it in your hand,” Giorgi says.
The cannabis leaf crushes under the palm of my hand, releasing the strong, recognizable scent.
Giorgi’s vision shifts towards the abandoned military vehicle.
“Throw it out the window,” he says, “If the soldiers catch us, we’re in serious trouble.”
We toss the crumpled stem and I lean forward.
“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 chainmail 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 overgrown 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 climb the sheer rock face with grooves for my feet and only 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. 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 realize every bruise on my body, even the risk getting here, is all worth being a part of Khevsureti, even just for a moment.
By Jennifer Walker
About the Author
Jennifer Walker is an Anglo-Hungarian freelance writer living in Budapest, Hungary. After a sordid past involving a PhD in Physics, she threw caution to the wind to follow her dream of writing. In 2012, she went to Tbilisi, Georgia to work at the national newspaper Georgia Today. She specializes in travel, art and culture, and writes for The Budapest Times, Kunstpedia, ARTES Magazine, The Huffington Post, GOOD Magazine. Her work has also appeared at Gadling, Viator, The Matador Network and more. To read more, visit Jenniferdeborahwalker.com or follow her on Twitter: @JDWalkerWriter.