A flight to Baku, nothing seen but its scatter of lights as we came in low over the Caspian. On again to Tbilisi, arriving late and tired. 2am to bed, a room overlooking the mediaeval city wall striding a hill, two large and handsome Georgian churches lit up beside it.
Up at five and away with the dawn into a wide, rolling country. Two hours to a handsome house – high ceilings, polished parquet, shafts of sunlight – where, at a long table on a glazed veranda, breakfast of fruit, yogurt, eggs, local bread awaited us. Windows open to the breeze, lace curtains shading the glare of the warming day, a genial gang – a dacha scene from Tolstoy.
Two more hours east, the mountains on the horizon growing. Past the great 11th century Alaverdi Monastery – and then the road getting smaller, smaller – and finally turning to a rough – very rough – track. No preamble of foothills. Into the mountains.
The western slopes: heavily forested and very, very steep, great drifts of snow lying in hollows, rushing water, pine scent, sparkling air. Zagging up and up and up and so grateful for the sure-footedness of the cars, skittering cms from drops of… thousands of feet. Past the tree line and still only half way up. Light like a blade. Four hours and never more than 10mph – and at last the pass, 11,000 feet into the sky. Looking down on a golden eagle, patrolling the wind.
Clear sight to the high, snow-covered Caucasian watershed a dozen miles east – Chechnya beyond. Then across the pass with the wind and down into high meadows, a different country. Following a young river into its gorge. Pines, steep grass, crags, alpine. More hours, the going less alarming now – and then, ten hours from Tbilisi, six from the lowlands, the gorge opens…
…wondrously, into a wide, open bowl, a hidden verdant land held in the palm of the great mountains. Open grassland, stands of trees, hay meadows, occasional crop strips, horses, a galloping horseman – and here and there hamlets of wooden houses poised high up on the tall surrounding shoulders.
We were in Tusheti.