A canter through the Caucasus

Telegraph, UK
May 14 2004

A canter through the Caucasus
Rachael Heaton-Armstrong revels in the peace of a country that’s
often in conflict.

Georgia basics

Terror and panic. What with civil wars, assassinated presidents and
ethnic tensions, I suppose most people on holiday in the Caucasus
experience some of that. In my case, though, the terror and panic I
felt shortly after my arrival in Georgia were related to horses.

Horse play: riding in the Caucasus

I spent most of my childhood on horses so, although I hadn’t ridden
for years, the fear that overwhelmed me when I saw some prancing out
of the stables took me by surprise. They were Arab/English/Akhaltekin
crossbreeds, a mixture of recently castrated geldings and young
mares, and somewhere in my nervous mind was the idea that they
wouldn’t understand English.

I was given a three-year-old filly. We greeted each other with mutual
trepidation and within minutes I found that, although she was
sure-footed and could come to a screeching halt if she wanted, both
her steering and brakes were capricious. We set off downhill at a
brisk trot. I clung to the pommel of the saddle – something I had
been forbidden to do as a child – adapted my English style and
ignored my nerves.

We were about to embark on a reconnaissance trip to check out this
idyllic country for a new trek. I was one of five Britons – the
others were a photographer living in Georgia, an actress, an art
dealer and the owner of Ride World Wide. Four Georgians took care of
our every need: a wild reprobate artist, a doctor trained in Vienna,
a taciturn engineer and the owner of the horses – all the soul of

Our introduction to the area had come during the car journey to the
stables when our tank was filled by an ancient babushka who shuffled
out of a roadside hut with a ceramic jug of petrol. A mile farther on
half of this was siphoned off to give to someone else who had run out
of petrol. This is the Georgian way.

We were in the beautiful rolling countryside of southern Georgia, an
hour from the capital, Tbilisi.

The bitter rivalries and tensions that continue to wrack this part of
the world (only this week civil war was narrowly averted in Georgia)
seemed a million miles away.

The Khrami Massif ranges from the gentle slopes of beech woods to
precipitous gorges of scrubby elm, hornbeam and oak that lead down to
fast-flowing rivers rushing towards the Black Sea. Wild boar live
here and show their appreciation by digging up the soft, fertile

We rode up sheer mountain paths that gradually faded out, testing our
tracking skills and the agility of the horses. On the steepest parts
we led them, their soft noses pressed hard against our backs, to
2,500ft crests where the meadows stretched far, far off to the
snow-capped Caucasus. These are picture book pastures – with
innumerable varieties of sweet-smelling flowers and herbs. The sound
of shepherds cracking their whips mingled with the skylarks’ songs as
swallows, house martins and swifts swooped around us for the feast of
insects the hooves would unearth.

Scores of tiny crumbling churches dot the landscape, hiding in the
woods or perching on hilltops. One of the finest is the 12th-century
Gudarekhi monastery, which sits miles away from any road. A stream
borders the surrounding walnut grove of this little Arcadia where
honeybees bliss out on pollen provided by the thick carpet of tall
flowers. Gudarekhi’s intricately carved arches and faded frescoes are
soon to be restored and the whole complex will be occupied by monks
whose predecessors were chased away by the Russians.

One afternoon, out of the silent dappled woods came an elderly man on
a pony, his burnished face and wide grin overshadowed by a huge furry
hat. Suddenly we were surrounded by his vast flock of goats and sheep
eager to reach their summer pastures.

Glorious days rolled into glorious days. Each started with morning
tea, sweetened with condensed milk, delivered to our tents by one of
our Georgian hosts, and ended 10 long hours later when we rode into
camp, usually well after dark, to be handed a bottle of potent
home-made chacha (Georgia’s answer to vodka).

In between we watched the scenery change every mile. We scrambled up
a five-storey seventh-century lookout tower topped with an eagle’s
nest, heard a bear playing in the river, watched a pine martin for
longer than it would have liked, rode along a railway track, saw
water buffaloes belonging to Azerbaijani nomads pulling carts laden
with wood, and swam in a silent, silky lake.

We picnicked in perfect spots, drank from mineral-rich springs, ate
succulent lamb kebabs and tiny river fish, washed in sparkling
streams and collapsed into exhausted sleep despite the loudest chorus
of frogs I have ever heard.

I soon regained my riding confidence, but after a couple of days I
wanted a change from the unpredictability of youth, so I swapped to a
perfectly mannered older horse that walked instead of pranced and
whose rolling canter was a real joy.

One magical day began with our first sight of Dmanisi, from the
opposite side of a deep gorge. Inhabited since Palaeolithic times,
the citadel stands high above a three-way junction of the east/west
Silk Road and the route south to Armenia. It was here that Professor
Kopaliani, who showed us around, discovered skulls that proved to be
1.7 million year old – the most primitive human remains ever to be
found outside Africa.

When we set off from Dmanisi at 3pm we were assured of a short ride
ahead. We took our time to wander through elegant beech woods, stop
for a lazy cup of tea and enjoy the novel idea of getting to camp
before dark. The track soon became a narrow path and finally even the
animal footprints disappeared. This didn’t seem to matter until we
reached a particularly breathtaking view we had seen well over an
hour before and we realised we were lost. Then we heard a chicken
clucking. Where there’s a chicken there’s a pot and where there’s a
pot there are people. We knew a village must be near.

We galloped up the hill to a clearing where an Asiri nomad summer
settlement was bathed in the setting sun, filtered through the smoke
of evening fires. Children led the procession to greet us with
turkeys, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats and the helpful chicken
looking on. But with the light fading we had to charge on, straight
into a ferocious, deafening wind that turned everything in its path

In the middle of this hostile, blasted plateau we managed to
rendezvous with a friend who was to guide us through the next part of
the journey. He was laden with manna – hot-from-the-oven khachapuri,
heavenly cheese-filled bread – and led us on his tiny pony down an
endless path of overhanging trees and sudden streams.

It was 11pm by the time we reached the dirt road and a house whose
owners spoke neither Georgian nor Russian. Instinct led us to the
village shop, which had for sale one pair of socks, giant sugar
lumps, Champagne, tinned meat, cheese, sweets, the odd toy and –
mercifully – cold beer. We then set off for the final, unbelievable,
five miles of the journey. We led the exhausted horses along the
moonlit, potholed road and finally collapsed at the gate of the
Bolnisi Sioni churchyard at 1am. Down the darkened path we saw an
ethereal blaze of candlelight flooding through the door of the
church. When the priest appeared in the doorway to welcome us with a
serene, beatific smile it seemed God had rewarded us with a glimpse
of heaven.

An enormous supra – a feast – was laid out in the tiny bell tower
where the priest lives, a gun hidden in his bed. Excellent
home-brewed wine accompanied the toasts of celebration and
thanks-giving that ended the day.

For six days we had seen no cultivation, but now on the home stretch
we meandered through tiny fields where women and men tended plots of
two or three crops sown together – maize and beans and potatoes. Then
up and over an escarpment to a sea of wheat.

We rode on through flowering acacia spinneys humming with bees and
cooled off in the Khrami River. But the rock I clung to – to save me
from being swept away – suddenly disappeared beneath me when the
river rose more than 12 inches in a few minutes and I had to be
pulled ashore.

We returned to Tbilisi shaking with exhilaration and exhaustion, our
spirits filled with the absolute beauty of the country and the charm
of its people. Legend has it that when God was dividing up the world
he kept the best, Georgia, for himself. He chose well.

Georgia basics
Ride World Wide (01837 82544, ) offers an
11-night trip similar to the one taken by Rachael Heaton-Armstrong
for £1,350 per person. This includes all meals and accommodation in
tents, hotels and guesthouses plus all riding and transfers.
International flights can be arranged separately.

Further reading: Stories I Stole from Georgia by Wendell Steavenson
(Atlantic Books, £7.99).