Published on The Guardian, 15/12/2012
Runner-up the The Guardian’s Travel writing competition
Not a soul to be seen. The roads were empty: no babushkas at the windows, no children running in the fields, no men sipping chacha (brandy) on their steps. Although we knew Ushguli was remote, we hadn’t expected the streets to be completely empty. That was worrying. From Ushguli, we’d been told, we could catch a shared jeep back to the regional capital, Mestia.
There were no jeeps. We walked past stone houses, towards the tiny church, the white-tipped peaks of the Caucasus just visible behind. At last, the villagers appeared, streaming out of the tiny door, making for the cemetery below, where, in front of crooked gravestones, tables were laden with food. Tomatoes, roasted suckling pigs and bottles of chacha – the living and the departed feasted together.
“Mestia?” we asked, wandering between tables, accepting fresh cheese pies and hunks of pork. “Tomorrow,” they replied. The penny dropped. It was Assumption day, one of the holiest of the year. I was petrified at the idea of spending the night banqueting with the dead. We’d have to hitchhike. Back on the main road cars sped past, covering us with dust. Then hours would pass with nothing. Our hopes were fading with the light. We prepared for a night under the stars, but the temperature was dropping fast. Suddenly, a police jeep pulled up. “Mestia? Come with us.”
I could not believe our luck. Three policemen, vests bulging with ammunition. “Move the guns,” one of them ordered, pointing to a pile of machine guns on the back seat.
We bobbed over bumpy roads, squeezed between guns and police muscle, shells digging into our chests, past the conical summit of Mount Shkhara and the twin saddle-shaped peaks of Mount Ushba, heading towards a mountain pass.
At the top, the jeep pulled to an abrupt halt. “Get out,” barked one policeman. We climbed out shaking, thinking they were going to test the guns on us. They looked at our frightened faces, then burst out laughing. “We not kill you! Just little rest.” In the twilight, we swapped stories between rhododendron bushes and Alpine wildflowers, joking about how lucky we had been. A reminder to check the calendar, next time we go on a trek.