MOUN­TAINS OF MYTH

Even af­ter mil­len­nia of con­flict and ex­plo­ration, Ge­or­gia re­mains a fron­tier­land, al­lur­ingly beau­ti­ful, but elu­sive.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS -

Ge­or­gia has long been a fron­tier­land, an al­lur­ing back­drop to mil­len­nia of con­quest and dis­cov­ery.

Story & photography by An­drea Oschetti

THE CAU­CA­SUS IS WHERE THE WORLD ENDS. So thought the Greeks and Ro­mans, to whom the re­gion was the fringe of the Oikumene, the civilised world. There you stepped from the known into the realm of myth: Prometheus was chained to its crags, and Jason and his Arg­onauts came to its Black Sea shores in search of the Golden Fleece. Ex­tend­ing from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, the Cau­ca­sus di­vide Rus­sia to the north, from Iran and Turkey to the south. Con­se­quen­tially, this re­gion rep­re­sented the Ori­ent to Rus­sians, who be­came en­am­oured with its ex­oti­cism. Part of the border be­tween Europe and Asia, it is a land of unique­ness and am­bi­gu­ity, peo­pled by a great diver­sity of tribes: Tushetians, Os­se­tians, Ratchuelians, Khev­surs and Svans. In the late 19th cen­tur y, with the Alps con­quered and man look­ing for some­thing be­yond, ex­plor­ers such as Dou­glas Fresh­field and pho­tog­ra­pher Vit­to­rio Sella felt the lure of this moun­tain­ous re­gion. All these things en­ticed me to travel to Ge­or­gia, at the heart of Cau­ca­sus, as an­cient Colchis did Jason. For me, the tow­ers of Svane­tia, the sum­mit of Mt Kazbek and a bite of au­then­tic khacha­puri – a lo­cal cheese bread – these are my golden fleece. To­gether with Steve White, the ed­i­tor of this magazine, I land in Tbil­isi, the Ge­or­gian cap­i­tal. On the cob­bled streets of the old town, lo­cals go about their busi­ness. Their lan­guage is be­yond us but the neigh­bour­hoods of dark pas­sage­ways, stair­cases and bal­conies are the stage of myr­iad dra­mas unguessed, mak­ing us feel like we are in a Dos­to­evsky novel. Our own plot lines draw us on, first north to 5,033-me­tre Mt Kazbek, the Mt Cau­ca­sus for the an­cients. We travel along the Ge­or­gian Mil­i­tary road, used by traders and armies since an­tiq­uity, and men­tioned by Pliny the Elder and by Strabo in his Geo­graph­ica. It is a raw, for­bid­dingly re­mote land: even the road we are trav­el­ling on seems to be strug­gling not to be swal­lowed by the ir­reg­u­lar, myth­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy. As we ar­rive at the vil­lage of Stepants­minda, we are en­veloped in mist and bang­ing rain: a veil has de­scended over the moun­tains. Only af­ter din­ner does Kazbek show it­self. Be­jew­elled with clouds, its peak catches the fires of sun­set and dances to the beat of moun­tain winds. The ma­jes­tic vi­sion moves me to awe and a lit­tle fear. To­mor­row, we be­gin our as­cent of that colos­sus.

THE STA­TION

The first leg of the climb is to a me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal sta­tion at 3,500 me­tres. The clouds are still low so

the sum­mit is out of sight but spir­its are high and we make good progress up the valley. Tato, our guide, leads us on, across the glacier be­yond, shrouded in cloud. In the blurred land­scape, I fan­ta­sise about find­ing Prometheus and free­ing him from his long tor­ment. He is said to have stolen fire from the gods and given it to men, en­rag­ing Zeus who chained him on this moun­tain. The myth is am­biva­lent: is he a rebel or a good Sa­mar­i­tan? I think of the con­flict in my own life be­tween ideals and the prac­ti­cal chal­lenges of the day-to-day. Bal­anc­ing con­tra­dic­tions calls for courage; an ef­fort that does not de­serve to end in chains. I want to free him; Prometheus un­bound. One of the joys of this trip is to ex­pe­ri­ence the en­vi­ron­ment that in­spired Greek mythol­ogy and to re­trace the foot­steps of peo­ples we have read of, who we ad­mire. The min­i­mal vis­i­bil­ity and slip­pery ground make photography hard. But I won­der at how much harder it would have been for Sella, strug­gling with a bulky tri­pod, wooden cam­era and glass plates. We re ach t he st at ion to f ind it f ull of na­tion­al­i­ties and the flags of pre­vi­ous ex­pe­di­tions. The talk among the teams is that none have sum­mited in the last week be­cause of the weather. The place is in­dus­trial and bare but alive with the fire of chal­lenge as moun­taineers, ex­pe­ri­enced or other­wise, talk of past achieve­ments and shared as­pi­ra­tions on this moun­tain. There are two ta­bles for 20 peo­ple. Each group clus­ters around their own boiler with dried food, sausage, bread and Nutella. Soon, sto­ries start to fly. We sit next to two Pol­ish climbers and talk about Sol­i­darnosc… the vast ma­jor­ity here are from the ex-com­mu­nist bloc. We share the good cheese and pro­sciutto we brought. A gui­tar starts to play a song by the bard Vladimir Vysot­sky. A few start to sing. It’s melan­choly, like in the West we would sing along to a Leonard Co­hen song. The feel­ing is very dif­fer­ent to that at the ho­tel down in the vil­lage. In this near-derelict Soviet weather sta­tion, there is a sense of pur­pose­ful­ness. We all know why we are here, each of us im­mersed in our highly per­sonal, yet ul­ti­mately shared quest.

AC­CLI­MA­TI­SA­TION

I wake at six af­ter a good night’s sleep. The sta­tion is quiet, most of the groups still sleep­ing. There is no one around in the kitchen and I take over a lit­tle cor­ner with my tea and muesli. Steve joins me a bit later and we start talk­ing about ad­ven­tures, as is our cus­tom. “What do you think the fu­ture of ad­ven­ture will look like?” he asks. It’s not an easy ques­tion. Ad­ven­ture, in the moun­tains es­pe­cially, has evolved many times since the pi­o­neer­ing at­tempts. First you would rush up a moun­tain and claim a first as­cent. Then, came the ob­ses­sion with the north faces. When all the Eight-thou­sanders were fi­nally con­quered, Rein­hold Mess­ner then climbed those gi­ants in Alpine style, with­out oxy­gen. The great­est climbers of the last cen­tury in my es­ti­ma­tion – Mess­ner and Bonatti – un­der­stand that ad­ven­ture has to be in­ter­nalised.

It is no longer about the un­der­tak­ing it­self, but how you al­low it to trans­form you. If you drag your­self up Ever­est but come back the same per­son, then what was the point? Our own goals this day are much more mod­est. We climb to 4,500 me­tres to ac­cli­ma­tise, vis­it­ing one of the high­est churches in Europe. Its Ortho­dox icons gaze out at a world of ice and rock from gilded re­pose. I am ag­nos­tic and Steve is an athe­ist, but no one goes to the trou­ble of build­ing a church in this in­hos­pitable place just for noth­ing… Evening comes with the news that the weather might even take a turn for the worse. Wind, fog and snow. Our plan is to start our sum­mit bid at 2 am if the weather is good. If vis­i­bil­ity is poor, we’ll wait at most un­til 4 am. Turn­around is at noon, what­ever hap­pens, sum­mit or no sum­mit.

SUM­MIT

I can’t sleep. The other teams are rest­less too. It’s al­ready been a week of bad weather and tonight might be a good op­por­tu­nity, the only one for some. The other four guys bunk­ing with us are also push­ing for the sum­mit tonight. Every­one has a dif­fer­ent sched­ule, so there is a fran­tic back and forth in the sta­tion’s rooms and cor­ri­dors. For­tune favours us. The weather has cleared and the night is beau­ti­ful. The fog sits heavy in the valley be­low. The moun­tain shows its sil­hou­ette against the starry sky. Moon­light comes and goes, sub­ject to the whims of cloud and wind. Dur­ing the mag­i­cal mo­ments when the moon shines un­ob­structed we turn off our head­lamps. Moon­light show­ers us with sil­ver and the moun­tain glows with a ghostly pal­lor. I feel lighter, pure spirit. Af­ter a cou­ple of hours we reach an area with crevasses. We rope up to Tato and pro­ceed swiftly. We are con­flicted, want­ing to get past this dan­ger­ous pitch but mind­ful that if we rush to the sum­mit, it will be ex­tremely cold. Af­ter the crevasses, there are two snow pitches that lead to plateaus at 4,300 and 4,500 me­tres. The clouds start to come down and by the time we reach the higher plateau we are en­veloped, with­out ref­er­ence points: a whiteout. We climb steadily to­wards a ridge where we catch the nascent sun, paint­ing golden the val­leys be­low. The wind buf­fets us from the west. I try to move the fin­gers on my right hand but they barely re­spond. My feet are numb from cold and also a back con­di­tion that has re­turned at a spec­tac­u­larly in­op­por­tune time. My calves burn with the ef­fort of climb­ing. I am caught be­tween pain and plea­sure: we are above a sea of clouds and the peaks of Cau­ca­sus reach out heav­en­wards. We can see El­brus in the dis­tance. I try to take pictures but I have to be care­ful not to pull Steve on the rope. Then the cam­era freezes up any­way. Un­en­cum­bered by the need to cap­ture the view, we make good progress and reach a small step be­fore the last 100-me­tre pitch to the sum­mit. This is the steep­est of sec­tion all, av­er­ag­ing 45° of deep snow. Tato tells us to hurry, afraid the weather could turn at any mo­ment and we set off, us­ing our ice axes to speed things up. When we reach the peak at 5,033 me­tres I try my luck with the cam­era again. It al­lows me to cap­ture a few shots. Steve and I grin at each other and hug. Then, we turn for the de­scent. At first, it’s easy and fun. The snow is not yet packed nor too deep. Then we reach a tra­verse where I strug­gle: the cram­pons are get­ting in my

way. I stum­ble a cou­ple of times but man­age to break my fall with the ice axe. Not grace­ful, but ef­fec­tive enough. At the higher plateau, we take our cram­pons off mak­ing progress much eas­ier though Steve and I still keep get­ting tan­gled on the rope to our guide’s an­noy­ance. Lower down, we meet a lady sit­ting on a rock. She says she does not feel well and is afraid of al­ti­tude sick­ness. She joins us and the four of us reach the sta­tion be­fore noon. Af­ter re­ward­ing our­selves with the re­main­der of the bread and jam, we de­cide to con­tinue down to the vil­lage, rather than stay­ing an­other night at the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal sta­tion. The lower al­ti­tude and a more com­fort­able bed are en­tic­ing. We make one stop: at Ger­geti Trin­ity church where Steve and I light can­dles. He lights his to St George, pa­tron saint of Eng­land, his home­land, and of Ge­or­gia. I think of St Ni­cholas, a saint whose ven­er­a­tion bridges Eastern and Western streams of Chris­tian­ity.

TO SVANE­TIA

We get back to Tbil­isi just in time to catch the overnight train west to Zug­didi. We are told that all the beds are taken and that there might not be enough room for my bike. Money changes hands and the train­mas­ter agrees to find a place for my bike, brought along for the next leg of my Cau­casian trip. More out of cour­tesy than be­cause of the bribe, we are up­graded to a com­part­ment with two beds. A gen­tle, fat lady is our car­riage at­ten­dant. She apol­o­gises pro­fusely for the sorry state of the toi­let. Still, there are fresh sheets on our beds and sud­denly the prospect of a good night’s sleep be­comes a re­al­ity. She wakes us at 5:30 am. We have ar­rived. There is a mo­ment of ap­pre­hen­sion since I can’t find my bike nor the train con­duc­tor. Still more alarm­ingly, the train is also shorter. I run along the rails and jump on the last wagon. To my re­lief, the bike is there. Steve takes care of the marshrutka, our mini­van to Uguli, and we cram in my bike. Our ho­tel is won­der­fully lo­cated in the mid­dle of the valley, sur­rounded by grassy fields. Be­yond are the for­est and at the head of the valley is the rocky pyra­mid of Mt Ushba which in­spires us as we plan the days ahead. To ex­plore on our own would be a mean­ing­ful ad­ven­ture, even if there is re­ally no point to reach. The v a l l e y s of Sv a net i a a r e l us h a nd en­chant­ing. The older vil­lages are guarded by im­pos­ing stone tow­ers, used as pro­tec­tion from

weather and raid­ing par­ties since me­dieval times. Steve and I run past sev­eral on the way down to the lo­cal po­lice sta­tion seek­ing per­mis­sion for our ex­plo­rations into what is a sen­si­tive area, right on the border with Rus­sia. It’s rel­a­tively straight­for­ward since we earn the sym­pa­thy of the only one with a stripe on his jacket, a well-built man with mil­i­tary bear­ing: talk of Ital­ian foot­ball, movies and songs they re­mem­bered from Soviet times do­ing the trick. This bu­reau­cratic hur­dle be­hind us, we could re­lax over a hearty din­ner. I delved into Fresh­field to read what he had to say about the Svans: “Off the world’s high­ways and out of the world’s con­tests, the moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties went on turn­ing, round and round in their own rock-girt pool, un­til they were swept at last into the stream of the na­tions. Mean­time the Free Suane­tians were free and in­de­pen­dent to their hearts’ con­tent. They were as lawless as the Cy­clopes of the Odyssey. They knew no re­straint to their pas­sions. No man could call ei­ther his wife or his house his own ex­cept in so far as he could de­fend them by force. Such a state of things was too ideal to last in this pro­saic, or­der-lov­ing age. In 1833 Rus­sia as­sumed sovereignty over the dis­trict, and as years went on her sovereignty be­came more than nom­i­nal.” The Svans are proudly in­de­pen­dent. They sur­vived the Mon­gols and the dis­in­te­gra­tion of Ge­or­gia in the late Mid­dle Ages, they sur­vived the Sovi­ets. They have re­tained a clear iden­tity for cen­turies: speak­ing an un­writ­ten lan­guage and con­tin­u­ing to ob­serve long-held tra­di­tions such as blood feud. Fresh­field con­tin­ues: “Our Min­gre­lian in­ter­preter ex­plained to us the voices [over­heard ear­lier] on the wall: ‘Let us tie them up, let us rob, let us kill.’ Such was my first in­tro­duc­tion to Suane­tians.”

GATE­WAYS TO HIS­TORY

In­spired by the ex­ploits of Fresh­field, we spurn the clas­sic walk to the Ushba glacier, and head in­stead for the Bet­sho pass, not men­tioned in any of to­day’s guide­books. It is the border with Rus­sia and is an off-lim­its, a mil­i­tarised area. We reach a check­point where we are or­dered to go back. We stand our ground, mak­ing os­ten­si­ble dis­plays of our appreciation of the peo­ple of the Cau­ca­sus and show­ing them Fresh­field’s di­ary. They ar­gue it’s im­pos­si­ble to let us through and even if they did, what would be the point? “There’s noth­ing there!” One sol­dier says. We in­sist that it is a place for the imag­i­na­tion: the Bet­sho pass was cru­cial in the his­tory of the re­gion and we want to re­live the ex­pe­ri­ences of the ex­plor­ers we’ve been read­ing about. We go over a map and find a com­pro­mise. One of the sol­diers has to pa­trol up the valley on horse­back. If we prom­ise not to dis­ap­pear from his sight and to stop at a des­ig­nated point, then we can go. For­tu­nately, the pa­trolling sol­dier is less strict than his com­rades: “Just wait for me at the meet­ing point,” he says and leaves us to it. We head up a forested valley, the smell of spruce in­tox­i­cat­ing, un­til we reach fields of grass as tall as we are. We gaze at the pass in the dis­tance. Nat­u­ral tow­ers flanked by im­pen­e­tra­ble walls. What a view! I can pic­ture the car­a­vans,

and the armies of for­got­ten em­pires that tried to cross through this gate. It is a small door­way for such an in­cred­i­ble wall, a thresh­old only for those brave enough to en­ter this land of myth, the moun­tains of Kaf, of Prometheus and Her­cules, of Cochis and the Arg­onauts, of the Hyper­bore­ans, of Gog and the fear­some Scythian riders.

TRAILS OF GRASS AND ICE

We con­tinue our ex­plo­rations next day as we make our way to Mes­tia, Svane­tia’s big­gest town. We choose sim­ply to cross the in­ter­ven­ing hills, ac­cept­ing of the dan­ger of los­ing our way in the val­leys. We trust in our out­door skills, read­ing the land. Hav­ing to ob­serve, you dis­cover nu­ance. Ev­ery view is fresh and there­fore full of awe: we are look­ing as Loy­ola said, “to find God in all things.” Pres­ence, be­ing at­ten­tive to lit­tle things, brings ful­fil­ment in life. The weather keeps chang­ing, the clouds danc­ing around the sun, teas­ing sub­tle shades of green out of the valley. Flow­ers add ac­cents of yel­low and white as we de­scend the other side, cross­ing icy streams into pas­ture un­til we fi­nally ar­rive at Mes­tia. We are foot­sore and thank­ful, with a strong sense that cross­ing the moun­tains has been this way for cen­turies. Next morn­ing, we leave Mes­tia and are soon hik­ing a trail busy with lo­cals dressed in ‘Sun­day’ best. The towns­folk are go­ing to a cel­e­bra­tion in a small, lone church half­way up the valley. Out­side the church, they are slaugh­ter­ing a goat as an of­fer­ing. In­side is dark, de­spite the many can­dles. One by one, the rev­ellers come with an of­fer­ing of cooked ke­bab, or grappa, or bread, or a sheep, or some money. They say the name of a per­son to the two men of­fi­ci­at­ing the cer­e­mony. The prayers and songs seem dis­con­nected and ran­dom at first but they soon find a com­mon thread and a har­mo­nious crescendo fills the church. The singing ex­pands and cre­ates a pal­pa­ble ten­sion that sends a shud­der down my spine. I feel the an­i­mated ado­ra­tion grow and grow un­til it fi­nally bursts in a ca­coph­ony of amens. We leave the cel­e­bra­tions and con­tinue to the Tet­nuldi glacier. It is a wall of ice that closes the pass be­tween two peaks. We can see how ice has carved out the valley as the glacier re­treated since the last ice age. Its hulk­ing off-white mass seems in­ac­ces­si­ble and fore­bod­ing but we need to cross

the river fol­low­ing out from un­der it. We have no guide and there are no bridges or fords that we know of. The cur­rent is strong and wa­ter icy. We talk our­selves into risk­ing it and for­tu­nately reach the other bank un­scathed. There we climb a steep trail to a pass. Be­yond is re­vealed an­other im­mense valley, more ma­jes­tic na­ture. Ushguli, our des­ti­na­tion, lies hours away yet, still hid­den.

A PLACE FOR WON­DER

We are nowhere, yet I feel we have ar­rived. This valley, with­out a name on our map, shows few hu­man marks save for the trail we stand on. The view brings me the free­dom that lured me to the Cau­ca­sus. From this high point, we are free to spill out into na­ture in any di­rec­tion, to be­come part of it even. Con­nect­ing t o natu re i n wi l d pl a c e s in­ter­rupts the con­stant back and for­ward, from past to fu­ture, of our ev­ery­day selves. When we are so con­scious of our be­fore and af­ter as we travel, we are never present, of­ten anx­ious, sel­dom al­low­ing our­selves won­der­ment. Raw na­ture also re­moves us from the dis­trac­tions of mod­ern tourism: the buy­ing of sou­venirs, or post­ing on so­cial me­dia, vol­un­tar­ily ty­ing our­selves to home. In Ge­or­gia, we al­lowed no such con­flict. Nor did we see our­selves the con­querors of any­thing. We did it all for the sake of it. In­stead of look­ing for pass­ing en­chant­ment in a land­mark, we looked for mean­ing in things that couldn’t be seen. Places are just places, af­ter all. The hap­pen­stance and im­per­ma­nence of bor­ders, the ri­valry and ca­ma­raderie of shared ex­pe­ri­ence, the re­trac­ing of routes from a just-dis­cernible past: these were the mark­ers on our maps. In this way we felt we’d trav­elled well, with pur­pose. We’d been to the end of the world. There we saw its watch­tow­ers of stone – those crum­pled up in the col­li­sion of con­ti­nents and those piled high by the in­dus­try of man. And the cheese bread wasn’t bad ei­ther.

FAD­ING GLO­RIES Many vil­lages in the moun­tains of Ge­or­gia are for­ti­fied with stone tow­ers that in­ex­pli­ca­bly evoke the 13th-cen­tury city-states of cen­tral and north­ern Italy.

SHIFT­ING HORI­ZONS Swirling cloud en­velops the party as they climb the glacier to the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal sta­tion, al­ready re­veal­ing glimpses of big­ger chal­lenges to come.

NEG­A­TIVE SPACE Though clearly marked on maps, the broad plateau be­low Kazbek’s sum­mit is a near-blank, these trails too, soon to be erased.

LIGHT IN THE DARK­NESS De­spite their his­tory of of­ten fiercely-stated in­de­pen­dence, the Svans and other tribes have also long been de­vout Eastern Ortho­dox Chris­tians.

IR­RE­SISTIBLE FORCE The tum­ble of ice and rock be­low Tet­nuldi has spent mil­len­nia carv­ing a grey scar through its lush sur­round­ings, a re­minder that na­ture heeds no stone tower nor border guard.

ON A ROLL To walk into the foothills of the Cau­ca­sus is to wind the clock back to the dawn of mod­ern man, when we first learnt to rear an­i­mals on ver­dant slopes just like these.

EAT­ING LO­CALLY Sta­ples of Ge­or­gia: kacha­puri, a de­li­cious cheese-filled bread still baked in al­most ev­ery home; and ke­bab, of­ten cooked just yards from the blood­ied ground where the goat or sheep was slaugh­tered.

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