“Folks, haven´t you considered hiring horses?”, asks Nino, the local guide, while serving our dinner. “The section you plan to walk tomorrow follows a dirt road, would be more interesting on the horseback.”
We hesitate. Noone did consider this option before, after all, only two of us have some riding experience. We planned to cross from Omalo to Shatili on foot but the horse trip sounds like a pretty good way how to make this trek even more memorable. Moreover, the price is very acceptable, a fraction of what we would have paid at home. After a short debate, we vote for the horses.
We leave the guesthouse, head towards our campsite at the edge of the village. It´s already dark outside, but we can clearly see mountains in the distance. Behind us, the dark silhouette of Omalo fortress looms against the sky. Mike, the avid photographer tries to capture it on his camera. He is my friend from school and the only guy I actually know. The rest of our party is formed by inseparable girls Petra and Kika and their friend Filip - we banded together just for this trip, acquainted by mutual friends.
I lie in a sleeping bag and still can´t believe it. Just one day before, I was dining with my parents in Bratislava and now I am here in Tusheti, deep in the Caucasus mountains. But it doesn´t take long - I am still tired after the flight and quickly fall asleep.
Omalo by night
We awake to the gloomy morning. Clouds are hanging low, but it can´t ruin our mood - we yearn for an adventure.
Breakfast is discreet. We eat bacon, which is considered unclean, brings misfortune and shouldn´t be brought into Tusheti. I always research the customs of the region I visit, but I am not always willing to respect all I learn. I never go trekking without a slab of bacon, be it cursed or not.
Horses arrive almost on time. I assumed Nino would guide us, but she sent some young guy instead. He speaks neither English nor Russian. We never learned his name so, for the sake of the story, let´s call him Vakho.
With the help of some locals, Vakho fastens our backpacks onto the horses - each horse has one balancing on its back, right behind the rider. Finally, we are ready to go.
First steps are “interesting”. I’ve never sat on a horse before so I just hold the reins and try not to fall. We got no instructions before the ride so we just watch what Vakho does - he screams “atchuu” to spur the horse and “prrr” to stop it (this word we know). Luckily, no special skill is needed - horses are just following each other.
On the horse
After a while, we leave the main road and enter the forest - a shortcut to Dartlo. Our trail then joins the main road again, climbs a bit to the small pass and dives into the valley of Pirikiti Alazani.
By this time, we already feel pretty comfortable on a horseback and often spur horses into the trot. It´s easy, they are eager to run. We also take many photos while holding reins by just one hand or not holding them at all - unimaginable just a few hours ago. Riding the horse is so easy!
The only nuisance is our backpacks. Some of them, including mine, keep sliding down so I regularly have to turn around and adjust them into the horizontal position. And no matter how tightly we tie them, they refuse to stay fixed.
Our small group eventually spreads out over several hundreds of meters. At times, I see nobody in front of or behind me. It´s just me, horse and the road. I feel like a true explorer, even though I am following a dirt road connecting two largest settlements of Tusheti.
Finally, a Dartlo village appears in the distance. It looks like a place from another time, taken straight out of Lord of the Rings. It´s magnificent stone towers.... Nevermind, let´s keep it simple. It looks like this:
Dartlo on a sunny day...
and the real weather we got
By the entrance to the village, Vakho asks us to get off the horses. In Tusheti, strangers shouldn´t ride a horse in the village - another local tradition, reflecting the troubled past of the region. Though, with foreign invaders currently being replaced by paying tourists, this one may not survive for much longer.
We get a one-hour long break. Apart from the lunch (more bacon, God forgive us), we have also some time to explore the village. It’s lovely, unspoiled by modern architecture. Houses are built of stone, many have traditional wooden balconies. Unlike Omalo where you can find many metal roofs, roofs here are made of slates. Nearby is also the ruin of a church with a sign “Women don´t go in”. Our girls don’t go in. We do, but there is not that much to see really.
Time to move on. The road to Parsma is cut into the hillside not far from the Pirikiti Alazani river. During our break, the last of the clouds dispersed and now we have a beautiful sunny day. Everything is perfect. Blue sky above, gurgling river below, mountains everywhere…
Valley of Pirikiti Alazani
Probably the last photo we took that day
It happened about 20 minutes after we left Dartlo. At that time, I was riding in the middle of our group - Petra and Filip were with Vakho some 20 meters ahead, the rest not far behind. I was riding slowly, admiring the views when something hit my horse from behind. It panicked and turned into the gallop. Surprised and scared, somehow I managed to stay in the saddle. Then, after a few seconds, we bumped into the group ahead. Some confusion followed, but they were able to control their horses and mine had to stop. Then I saw what hit us in the first place.
By us galloped another panicked horse. It was Mike´s white stallion, but Mike wasn´t sitting in the saddle - he was being dragged on the ground, bouncing helplessly like a ragdoll, with one of his shoes stuck in the stirrup!
Then, many things happened at the same time. I remember Vakho jumping to the ground and running after the crazy horse. I remember Filip and Petra dismounting. And I remember myself watching the scene for a moment and repeating “kurva, kurva, kurva, kurva”.
My second thought was: “I need to get off the horse!” Tried to free my feet. And then I found out why it´s a really bad idea to go riding in hiking shoes. Unlike proper riding boots, they have hard and rugged Vibram soles, which can easily get stuck in the stirrup. And that´s exactly what happened to me. I managed to free my right foot, but the left one got trapped.
I needed a few more seconds, but I didn´t get that much time. My horse, seeing the chaos around, panicked again. It turned around and start running, away from the scene of the accident. And there I was, trying to keep my balance on a speeding horse, with one foot flailing free and the second one trapped in the stirrup!
Now I found myself in real trouble. I dropped the reins and grabbed the horse´s neck. Then I somehow managed to put my right foot back into the stirrup, just in time, as the horse soon turned into the gallop.
I never rode that fast in my life. It was terrific and terrible at the same time. I already spent a few hours on this horse, but only now I realized the true power it possessed. The power I couldn´t control! I just held him as tight as I could, yelling “prrrr” all the time.
It felt like an eternity, but finally, after some 300 meters, horse calmed down and stopped. I carefully freed my shoes and dismounted. My thoughts immediately returned to Mike. Was he alive or dead? I had to find out, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to face what had happened there.
It took five terrible minutes to walk back to the scene of the accident. I’d never felt so miserable in my life. I am not a believer, but this time, I prayed. Just in case.
Finally made it to the group of our horses which obscured the view. Vakho was sitting on the grass, completely shocked, tears in his eyes. He looked at me and shook his head.
Now I finally saw Mike - he was lying on the ground some 20 meters ahead, Peta and Filip sitting by him. Kika, also visibly shaken, was holding our horses. We exchanged looks.“Is he alive?”.
“Yes, he is”.
I gave her reins of my horse, ran to the Mike. He was covered in dirt and blood, heavily bruised and scratched. But, luckily, none of his wounds looked really serious. Peta with Filip were already bandaging some uglier cuts on his arms.
Mike opened his eyes, looked at me and whispered with a hint of a smile:”Maybe we really shouldn't have brought that bacon.”