On the border of Chechnya, deep in the Caucuses mountains, with the last tribe of nomadic shepherds.
as told to
They dreamt of Tusheti. Lush and green, it was steeped in the sky, away from the desert and its scorpions. Shepherds wandered between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, from Azerbaijan to Chechnya to Georgia, over 200 miles through desert and mountain, but to these nomads Tusheti was the only place that mattered. Getting there was all they talked about.
I had read about these nomadic shepherds, like characters in ancient times, always finding truth in the emptiness of their mission. Noah, my filmaking partner, and a translator, wrangled a way to join them, hoping to capture their enlightenment. We were warned. The trip was dangerous, days in the desert with little food, then up and on through the mountains on passes at 13,000 feet.
We had landed in Tbilsi amidst its faceless Soviet buildings. In Azerbaijn we met our contact, a shepherd named Bodgko. I remember his hands, which crushed my fingers. At his house, we drank from a sheep horn filled with some unknown vile liquor. In Georgia there are always three toasts, one for God, one for guests, and one for hatred of the Russians. Otherwise, Bodgko was a man of few words.
We’d entered a world processed entirely from sheep parts. Dinner was boiled sheep every night, a slop of sheep brain, sheep liver, and sheep kidney. The shepherds boiled water with sheep shit, which they’d had to dry for a year before it could be burned. We slept in sheep wool. They slept with the sheep in their pens.
These Georgian sheep were famous, worth $200 to $300 a head. They have distinctive skin flaps, big hunks of fat hanging off their butts, a distinction especially prized in the Middle East where most of them end up, sold to wealthy sheiks in Iran and Qatar for ceremonies and banquets. Bogdko and other shepherds were herding a flock of 2,500 to Tusheti, where cargo planes would roll into the fields to take them away. While they controlled the sheep with a range of whistle commands, the job of ensuring their safe passage, protecting the flock from wolves, fell to the shepherd dogs.
The white dogs stood out against the sheep, which were slathered in oil paint. German Shepherd-like except for their color, they each weighed around 100 pounds. When we first arrived in a car, they chased us out of instinct, sensing outsiders, threats to their flock.
If dogs from a different herd caught our scent, the shepherds might have been powerless to defend us. One of the shepherds advised that we seek refuge at a house in the distance.
Go quickly, he said.
After a mile, we heard barking. A flock approached from our right, out of a ravine, and then another appeared on our left. We walked faster. We’d thought the house was empty but it wasn’t. There were sheep dogs out front and when they saw us, they charged. The noise triggered the other dogs, who ran at us from both directions.
I took out my knife. There were ten dogs bearing down on us. They looked starving, ready to leave our bones to rot in the sun and sand. They increased their speed, closing in. I pointed my knife forward in wild desperation. Right then, a shepherd ran over screaming and slashing the air with a machete. The dogs backed off and we raced into the house.
“I’m going to fuck your mother if you don’t quit messing with the dogs. They’re going to kill you,” one of the shepherds told me.
It was obvious. Tusheti was not just a mythical promised land. It was our only way out. In the desert, fragile and exposed, we were our own sheep.
The oldest shepherd dogs were covered in scars from battles with wolves looking to feast on the slow, swollen herds of sheep. Some of the dogs wore burlap collars studded with porcupine rings, two-inch spikes sticking out to stop the wolves from ripping out their throats.
The dogs were on their own. It wasn’t common for the dogs and their masters to bond. The shepherds were sometimes even cruel to ensure the dogs kept their distance, patrolling a half a mile out, the emotional detachment a requisite for a good sentry.
Isolated and adrift, we passed the time by naming them. One whose tail and ears were bitten off by wolves we called Bear Dog. Two puppies we called Sun and Moon. Others we called Patos, Marlo, and Gallo. My favorite dog just showed up one day. We called him Shifty because he had a criminal’s gaze, lingering by the outside of the pack. I loved that dog.
The shepherds were followers of a religion that was Orthodox Christianity though mixed with ancient moon gods. On the way to Tusheti, the shepherds told us, we needed to appease the moon gods and sacrifice some sheep. Along a high mountain road through the Caucuses, we took a detour to a church in a local village. The killing started in the early morning.
The whole village — all its rich and poor — came to see the spectacle and indulge in the feast. As a shepherd slashed a sheep’s throat, I drank the local liquor out of a sheep horn. I had to keep accepting more drinks lest I insulted them. I don’t remember much of what happened next, but the shepherds found me and threw me in the back of their pickup truck while they made rounds to pick up injured or laggard sheep. I felt so cold and drunk I pulled one of the sheep into my lap, its face to mine, talking to it, nuzzling my nose against its own.
We lost our translator to what seemed like plague. Job-like boils spread over his body, the suspect an allergic reaction to sheep cheese. He left us with a few Georgian phrases, but we had a phrase of our own for the next stage of the journey: The March of Death. Everywhere on the path we walked were grave markers for fallen shepherds, memorialized with crude metal stakes and wooden markers.
As we ascended far above the tree line, rain turned to snow, and the sheep began to visibly suffer. They have to eat constantly and there was nothing for them to eat. The sheep were constantly straying off the path in vague fruitless search. At some points, the road was just a ledge carved out from the rock, and two hundred foot cliffs fell into a roaring river down below. The shepherds drove them hard to keep them going and to keep them from falling. We couldn’t stop, and some of the sheep were so fatigued the shepherds lashed them to horses. Others fell by the road, dead.
I was fading, too. Our searches for firewood failed. We couldn’t cook. The shepherds survived on bread but we were running out of Snicker’s bars. Deprived of potassium and vitamins, my body reacted in bizarre ways, my legs constricting in agony. After dark, the exhausted sheep lay down in the mud by the road and we lay down with them in the rain. We shrouded ourselves in tarps but the ground pooled anyway, our clothes soaked. I lost control of my body, shivering uncontrollably in the cold, a knot in one leg and then the other. It felt like the muscles in my body were going to rip. I couldn’t go on. I imagined them stringing me to a horse like they did the sheep. I had to get off that mountain.
The next morning we waded through a layer of dense fog. As we trekked higher on the road, mountain became glacier. At last, I saw a sign for the Abano Pass, and a map of Tusheti. I dragged myself ahead of the others to read it. But we’d only reached the border, an entryway, not the place itself. Fifty miles of hiking. We were only at the front door.
We walked down two miles into a valley, surrounded by towering walls of snow. If we kept walking, how would we get out? I started yelling, gesturing with my hands on an imaginary steering wheel.
“Machine? Car? Are they coming here?”
He waved his finger, no, no, no, and pointed back to where we were before. There was a truck, just one, and it was about to leave.
“Dump your fucking pack,” I yelled to Noah. “We have to get out of here.”
We started running back up the mountain, picking our way past sheep and horses clogging the road. At the peak was a Jeep Cherokee, rundown, decades old, about to motor off. Noah jumped in and then it was my turn. But that’s when I saw him. One of the dogs, almost frozen, limping along the glacier.
“We’re leaving! Get on the fucking truck,” Noah called from the Jeep.
It was one I knew, one I remembered. I moved closer, put my hand out. He let me touch his head, but that was it. Those dogs were soldiers. He kept moving, looking after his sheep. He limped on.