“We got comfortable in the hut, drinking wine, while our hosts burst out in Georgian songs. The wind blew fiercely outside.”
Every time I get the chance of exploring a place on horseback, I will take it. The small village of Stepantsminda in the Caucasus mountains offered the possibility of “horse riding for tourists” but this time I was hoping for an authentic experience. However, I was disappointed to see that tourism touched this corner of Georgia even more than the other places we visited. Everything changed when we hiked up to the Gergeti Trinity Church though. Enjoying the spectacular views and trying to escape the crowd, we decided to ask a group of sympathetic Georgian men if they would take us back to the village with their jeep. They were hesitant but after a little contemplation, invited us for a picnic with vodka and beer, the main reason they had decided to stop driving. And of course, I immediately asked: ‘u vas yest’ loshad’?’ (do you have a horse?) to which one of them answered that he had 60 of them. A plan was made on the spot. Our trip on horseback would include Georgian food and wine. We agreed to meet the next morning, doubting if he would hold up to his end of the bargain. He didn’t. Nothing happened at 9 a.m and about an hour later, I rang him. He explained that it was too hot for the trip and promised to meet us in an hour. We didn’t think much of that promise, seeing that he had already broken his first one and decided to explore the village instead. We forgot about the time when we walked around, feeding the village dogs and discovering an old fashioned post office selling postcards that are only for sale at flea markets nowadays. While heading back to our guest house, we ran into our friend. “I have been looking for you for ages!”, he exclaimed. We decided to join him and left our guest house dressed in summer clothes, carrying nothing more than a camera, oblivious to the fact that the trip we set out on wouldn’t just be a short walk in the mountains. Our new friend drove fast and dropped us off next the mineral water spring. He asked us to wait there while he fetched the horses. After a long wait, he appeared with two of them. We rode up the steep hills and left the road and villages behind, emerging ourselves in the most amazing scenery. The horses seemed to be familiar with the unpaved ways and mountain streams. An hour ride took us to a valley with a hut – the lonely home of three shepherds. They created this hidden shelter with everything they need. We were greeted with a nice meal and spend the rest of the afternoon walking around and meeting all the animals, in the company of three Caucasian Shepherd dogs.We didn’t feel like we had finished exploring when the sun started setting. It got colder and we missed our opportunity to walk back. The shepherds gave us some army clothes to keep us warm. In exchange we gave them a hand milking the cows. By the time all the work is done, it is completely dark outside. We got comfortable in the hut, drinking wine, while our hosts burst out in Georgian songs. The wind blew fiercely outside. I went outside, watching my step in order not to disturb any of the cows – they are spread out all around us. The shepherds split up, all attending to their own chores – one of them always taking care of the sheep, ready to protect them from a bear or wolf. The morning started out cold and rainy. We woke up to the sound of the shepherds bringing fresh milk in. They used this milk to make cheese with, which would later be sold in the town. We felt isolated in the nest of the cloudy valley and knew we should make our way back to the guest house. We had to wait until the weather would become bearable again but before that happened, a bull dies in the mountains. The shepherds don’t want to let us leave without feeding us a meal first. Time is so relative in this isolated place, it almost ceases to exist. After a few more glasses of wine, we decide to head out on our own before it starts raining again. The night storm reshaped the trail, revealing vast landscapes and, surprisingly many frogs. Failing to catch a ride and hitchhiking back to Stepantsminda, a taxi take us there right before the heavy rain starts again.
Later that night, while having a hot soup in a restaurant, I find myself thinking about the choice of life in the mountains, the daily routine and physically hard labour, being far away from family, the for us unbelievable scenery becoming nothing more than a familiar backdrop.
I sometimes still think of this, comparing our different realities while walking the grey streets of the cities.