I stare at the towers, imagining marauders on horseback, serfs crouching servile against these cracked stone walls, their bare feet muddy and calloused. Thin dogs wander at will; a horse makes its solitary way home. Against a stone wall an ox-drawn sled lies, constructed from logs, more practical in these rocky places than the wheel. Old carved doors, low and secretive, shut me out. There is a life lived here that I know nothing about; the towers, the small, square churches dating back to the eleventh century, hold pre-Christian secrets about life in these isolated mountains that tug at my mind. I am allowed only the briefest of glimpses; the sights and smells and sounds that testify to an ancient people living lives to which I am only a transient spectator. The depth of history here humbles me, the timelessness of it…
Georgia greets us with a large billboard featuring a smiling young lass encouraging us personally to visit the local casino and lose all our money. Just behind the casino billboard is a church. I’m not sure if there’s any significance in the order of placement and what that says about Georgia, but placing a church within a hundred metres of the border seems to echo the mosque placed an equal distance from the entrance into Turkey.
Tit for tat.
The mosque is bigger.
But the Christian character of Georgia, distinct from Muslim Turkey, is reinforced by the placement of crosses at the roadside entrance to, and exit from, most cities and villages. Then there are large ones mounted on prominent hilltops. Even the Georgian flag suitably features the bold, red cross of St George and, just in case you missed it, smaller bolnur-katskhuri crosses (like the German Iron Cross) in each quadrant. It feels like the Crusades all over again.
The first Georgian men we come across, because the weather is hot, are shirtless. Their bared torsos, the way they carry themselves, makes one think of strength and independence. They would need to be strong, these resilient Georgians, who, like many before, have dared to challenge the might of Russia and lost.
We ride through the low-land marsh-forests and swamps of the Black Sea coast near Batumi. Dense, sub-tropical vegetation encroaches onto the road; banana trees, vines clotted with purple grapes. Gentle-eyed cows claim the road as their own and all traffic is forced to give way. Briefly we turn inland and begin to climb; the air cools and is scented by eucalyptus trees that shed their bark to expose the smooth, blue-white skin beneath. Through Katumi, we joust with drivers who feel that traffic lights and white lines are merely reminders, the observance of which relies mostly on personal preference.
Back down again to the coastal wetlands, extensive and flat, the Black Sea is on our left; lakes, swamps and estuaries on the right. The road is little more than a causeway raised above the level of a damp and sodden land. Pigs snuffle about in water-filled channels; ducks push their way through long grass but the cows seem to prefer the warmth and companionability of the road.
Finally, after Poti we turn east, inland again and towards the mountains. The road narrows, towns become villages and traffic fades. Needing to discard our road tyres and fit the knobblies we have been carrying across Bulgaria and Turkey, we stop in the mid afternoon at a guest house. Hillda, the owner, is a small man sporting some gold teeth and a handful of English words which he practices on us. His wife, a homely-looking woman with white hair and a bulbous nose, fusses about preparing food. Hillda leads me into the dark interior of their house, a dilapidated, rambling, lived-in place that they share with a few paying guests. He shows me the bathroom, attempting to explain how to encourage the shower to work and the toilet to flush. On the wall, a Gorgon’s head of wires sprout, eventually making their way into old-fashioned, porcelain contact breakers.
Once we have unpacked, the women tell us they have provided food. Their generosity is similar to that we have experienced from rural Russians on previous trips. Rough, dry porridge, bread, strong white cheese, bits of dry chicken and a bowl of tomato and cucumber are placed in front of us; we are encouraged to eat. Hillda provides glasses and offers an open bottle of his home-made wine. He smiles his gold-capped teeth at us and uses his handful of English words.
Rested and replete, we balance the bikes on rocks and spare fuel containers, remove the wheels and road tyres and fit the new knobblies. It will be a relief to carry them no longer.
Now the fun begins. The heavily wooded foothills of the Caucasus mountains enclose the road, trees sometimes meeting overhead so we ride through a tunnel of foliage. The road is tar and good; we are children again, playing. Gone are the days of enduring mindless routes through heat and rain across Turkey, the clogged arteries of cities and coastal towns, the pain from stiff muscles…
The Rioni River follows the road (or perhaps the other way round), translucent and pale with sediment, but it has none of the threat of the turbulent, deadly rivers that mark the track of the Pamir Highway. We reach Mestia by midday, a medieval town nudging its way into the 21st century. Bare-legged hikers relax in the sun drinking Cokes while old, bent women dressed all in black hobble their way past, living their austere lives seemingly oblivious of the changes happening around them. The town, too, exists in parallel universes: worn, lived-in, tumble-down houses made of stone and mud with hand-cut wooden beams, rub shoulders with newly-constructed guest houses looking like Swiss chalets, and cafés soliciting the tourist dollar. It even boasts an air strip. And, dominating the town, ancient defensive towers stand like monoliths, hand-built standing stones, fifty feet high. This is a town so steeped in history that it asks to be explored; it needs time and patience for its secrets to reveal themselves.
But sadly we have neither. We relax briefly, pause for coffee. Then, eager to get on, we fill up with fuel, pump up the tyres and set off again, beyond the tourists, into the valley between the Caucasus and Svaneti mountains.
Later, on a small deserted road, we see an abandoned bridge high above the grey turbulent waters of the river and stop to play. Old bridges with missing and rotten timbers, like mountains, need to be crossed. Not being stupid, we check the planks, rearranging some so that we and our bikes don’t end up drowned. Gareth crosses first. I follow, but too close. His bike kicks a short plank loose and quickly I have to choose another line to miss the gap that has opened up, wide enough to swallow my front wheel. A YouTube moment just averted.
A short while later Gareth pulls over: puncture. I think the score is 6-0 to me. It’s a six-inch nail. He must aim for them. The tube is ripped and cannot be patched. Hot and sweaty, we replace it with our spare on the side of the road.
Finally we reach the dirt and life becomes interesting with some mud and rough stuff to keep us honest. Filming doesn’t encourage sedate riding and we fly along the rutted track that still follows the river. The mountains are sparsely populated; villages we come across seem desperately poor with many buildings abandoned and falling apart. And still the defensive towers, abandoned monoliths to a forgotten people defending themselves against a forgotten enemy. In one small village alone we come across twelve of them standing tall and silent, rising high above the roof tops.
We pause to explore deserted farm buildings built alongside one of the towers. There is something beautiful about the sad desolation. To reach them we must ride across a small wooden bridge and scramble up a steep earthen slope. It’s like an old Norman fortification, but the enemy now is poverty. The rural way of life here seems more tenuous and insubstantial than the towers that have about them an eternal quality, mysterious and enduring.
In the late afternoon we reach the village of Ushguli, Europe’s highest continuously inhabited settlement, a cluster of stone houses that have gathered themselves around the protective skirts of the towers. We find a guest house which we share with hikers and cyclists. On the horizon, snow-capped mountains beckon. Our host is an old crone, dressed in black. We enjoy our first beer in days.
Later, I walk out alone into the village and instantly I am transported into the twelfth century. Rocky paths too narrow for vehicles make their way between rock-built houses, roofed with great slabs of rough slate the size of tables, randomly piled. Gentle-faced children smile and greet me as I pass. The sweet smell of horse dung fills the air and, far off, a cock crows. Rough-cut wooden picket fences lean and sag, separating the path from overgrown plots of land. Above me the ancient towers loom, speaking of olden times. They are all empty, holding their secrets, their ornately carved doors barred from within. With my face pressed to the cracks, I can feel the cool air inside, smell the damp earth. I find one unbarred and crouch my way through the low entrance. Inside it is as dark as an underground tomb, the rough stones thickly covered in ash. Under my feet it is soft with a deep layer of dry cow dung. Outside again, old, black-garbed women go about their business acting as if I am not here. To them, I am an inconsequence, an intrusion into their anachronistic lives.
The sun is close to the surrounding mountain peaks. The air grows cold. Cows make their slow way home across the opposite valley, following well-worn paths. In the distance, the higher mountains are capped with snow and in the clear evening air they seem strangely close. The day settles to quietness. All about is the sound of flowing water. A cow bellows from somewhere far away. Shadows creep across the village but the high snow is still bright with evening light.
Clouds darken, threatening rain. I glance up and, in front of me, the ancient towers take me back again to swords and bows and arrows and frightened people hiding in upstairs rooms, staring out pale-faced from the narrow slits in stone walls; of cloistered monks offering up silent prayers from their narrow monastic cells.
I follow the path further into the village. A woman sits on a rectangular wooden stool and milks a cow by hand into an enamel bucket. Other cows breathe their hot, impatient breath, nudging each other, waiting their turn. In the houses, children are being put to bed. There is the smell of wood smoke in the air.
In the sky, high above the mountains, a jet aircraft catches the last of the sun’s rays and glows like a light. It is centuries away.
The towers, I discovered, are defensive, not religious. They were built between the 9th and 12th
centuries as protection against aggressive neighbours: the northern Caucasian tribes on the other side of the mountains and the Ossetians to the east. For centuries the Svans, this isolated tribe with their unique language and distinctive script, lived in fear of invasion from their neighbours, as well as attacks nearer home caused by blood feuds that often took place in these communities. Instead of building large fortresses or castles with defensive walls to protect the whole community, each Svan family constructed their own tower, five storeys high, with a gently tapering profile. The towers had entrances twelve foot above the ground with a ladder or staircase that could be quickly removed if they were attacked. Inside, heavy, flat stones were kept close to the ladder holes, ready to block the entrances.
Each tower was attached to a large two-storey, rock-built home that provided shelter for the extended family and their livestock, especially during the long, harsh winters. While many of the towers have fallen into disrepair and collapsed, in this village, Ushguli, at the head of the Enguri gorge, more than 200 have survived.
The next morning I wake early, get up and head again into the village following the muddy, rocky paths frequented at that time of the morning by cows and farmers’ wives carrying wooden stools and milk buckets. I need to be absorbed into the medieval atmosphere of this place once again before we leave and pass on into the future. I find myself accompanied by a large, hairy dog who lightly bites my hand when I stop petting him. Faithful brief friend, he sticks by me even though every dog through whose turf we trespass attacks him. I am faithful too and fling stones. We make it through together.
Cows stand about with yearning in their eyes, waiting to be milked. An old crone, stooped and, as always, dressed all in black, scoops up cow dung with a spade and flings it on a compost heap. Women, their cheeks pressed against the warm flanks of cows as they milk, smile at me as I pass. The metallic hiss-hiss of the warm milk frothing into the bucket blends with other early-morning sounds and the warm smell of dung.
Then it is time.
Back at the guest house, a friendly cow, tethered to the back of a truck, leans on us as we pack the bikes. The owner scrubs a large, cleanly-cut log under a block and tackle attached to a metal frame. He had told us the previous day that he needed the block and tackle for “some business” and we assumed it was to lift the engine out of a car. However, the tethered cow and its desperate neediness sparks a thought: It isn’t an engine that is about to be sacrificed to the block and tackle gibbet – it’s the cow.
We are sad. She’s a friendly cow. But such is life (or death, if you will).
Breakfasted, packed and loaded, we set off into the mountains. Immediately I can feel that my bike is out of sorts. Gareth notices my rear wheel bouncing repeatedly on the stony road. We stop and check the tyre pressures. And then I notice I’ve blown my monoshock. It’s not terminal. I’ll just have to bounce along for the next few thousand kilometres.
And then we rode.
It was like four hours of solitary enduro riding – rocky tracks; undulating tracks; muddy, slippery tracks; the mountains and the rivers and the trees our silent companions.
Occasional villages surprised us, tucked away deep in the mountains, picturesque, I am sad to say, in their rural, tumble-down poverty. The tragic beauty of decay. Here the villagers are clinging to survival; only the very old and the very young and their parents seem to live here. The teenagers, the young men and women, seem mostly absent. The ones left behind watch us as we pass, a fleeting intrusion into their struggle for existence.
We pass oxen pulling wooden, log-built sleds laden with hay; black and white spotted pigs in the roadway; small, straggly crops of maize; dusty streets; logs cut and stored against the high-altitude cold of winter; hay filling barns to their roofs, forked there by men standing on the top of loaded wagons. Desolate and abandoned houses seem the norm, not the exception. The most vibrant life in these villages seems to be the trees that often cover the road completely, pooling it in shade.
High up, the air is cool. Stream water is blue and clear and icy cold. We pass the remains of a glacier left un-melted in a mountain cleft close to the road. The ice is dirty and brown but with traces of the aquamarine blue that characterises old, glacial ice. Outside one small village we meet about twenty men in the road carrying what I at first think is a coffin. Closer, it turns out to be a large black and gilt Madonna and child being ceremonially carried on a wooden bier.
But all good things must end and we begin to descend into the heat of the more populous lowlands; the road still dirt, the villages through which we pass still poor.
Having been warned that the province of South Ossetia has closed its borders and won’t let us through, we head further south to Kutaisi, the road now good tar switch-backing between valleys in the Great Caucasus Range, almost traffic free. Loving the freedom of good tar, we ride… well, not idiotic fast; not even stupid fast; perhaps silly fast would best describe it. This wasn’t back-wheel-slipping, knee-scraping stuff, just good, old-fashioned fast riding that brings a smile to one’s face.
And then I had what my son calls my ‘encounter with death’ as a suicidal cow skittishly galloped across the road in front of me. I couldn’t stop so accelerated hard to get past it, heading onto the grassy verge just ahead of the cow, and then scrambling back onto the road before I hit two large rocks in my path.
We rode a little slower after that.
Just a little.
This article first appeared in Issue 15 of OVERLAND magazine.