Motorcycle Explorer Issue 17 - Page 56

Travel Story: lawrence bransby - georgia

Later, I walk out alone into the village. Instantly I am transported into the twelfth century. Rocky paths too narrow for vehicles make their way between rock-built houses, roofed with great slabs of rough slate the size of tables, randomly piled. Gentle-faced children smile and greet me as I pass. The sweet smell of horse dung fills the air and, far off, a cock crows. Rough-cut wooden picket fences lean and sag, separating the path from overgrown plots of land. Above me the ancient towers loom, speaking of olden times. They are all empty, holding their secrets, their ornately carved doors barred from within. With my face pressed to the cracks, I can feel the cool air inside, smell the damp earth. I find one unbarred and crouch my way through the low entrance. Inside it is as dark as an underground tomb, the rough stones thickly covered in ash. Under my feet it is soft with a deep layer of dry cow dung. Outside again, old, black-garbed women go about their business acting as if I am not here. To them, I am an inconsequence, an intrusion into their anachronistic lives.

The sun is close to the surrounding mountain peaks. The air grows cold. Cows make their slow way home across the opposite valley, following well-worn paths. In the distance, the higher mountains are capped with snow. In the clear evening air they seem strangely close. The day settles to quietness. All about is the sound of flowing water. A cow bellows from somewhere far away. Shadows creep across the village but the high snow is still bright with evening light.

Clouds darken, threatening rain. I glance up and, in front of me, the ancient towers take me back again to swords and bows and arrows and frightened people hiding in upstairs rooms, staring out pale-faced from the narrow slits in stone walls; of cloistered monks offering up silent prayers from their narrow monastic cells.

I follow the path further into the village. A woman sits on a rectangular wooden stool and milks a cow by hand into an enamel bucket. Other cows breathe their hot, impatient breath, nudging each other, waiting their turn. In the houses, children are being put to bed. An old woman, shawled and hobbling with a stick, makes her way home. On her feet, heavy boots. There is the smell of wood smoke in the air.

In the sky, high above the mountains, a jet aircraft catches the last of the sun's rays and glows like a light.

It is centuries away.

At first I thought the defensive towers were the steeples of old churches. But there were too many. For that many churches, there needed to be a population living here that would fill a city. Clearly this was not so.

The towers, I discovered, are defensive, not religious. They were built between the 9th and 12th centuries as protection against aggressive neighbours - the northern Caucasian tribes on the other side of the mountains and the Ossetians to the east. For centuries the Svans, this isolated tribe with their unique language and its distinctive script, lived in fear of invasion from their neighbours, as well as attacks nearer home caused by blood feuds that often took place in these communities. Instead of building large fortresses or castles with defensive walls to protect the whole community, each Svan family constructed their own tower, five storeys high, with a gently tapering profile. The towers had entrances twelve foot above the ground with a ladder or staircase that could be quickly removed if they were attacked. Inside, heavy, flat stones were kept close to the ladder holes, ready to block the entrances.

Each tower was attached to a large two-storey, rock-built home that provided shelter for the extended family and their livestock, especially during the long, harsh winters.

While many of the towers have fallen into disrepair and collapsed, in this village, Ushguli, at the head of the Enguri gorge, more than 200 towers have survived.

The next morning I wake early, get up and head again into the village following the muddy, rocky paths frequented at that time of the morning by cows and farmers' wives carrying wooden stools and milk buckets. I need to be absorbed into the medieval atmosphere of this place once again before we leave and pass on into the future. I find myself accompanied by a large, hairy dog who lightly bites my hand when I stop petting him. Faithful brief friend, he sticks by me even though every dog through whose turf we trespass attacks him. I am faithful too and fling stones. We make it through together.