Text by David Adams
Photography by David Adams
Squeezed between the Black and Caspian Seas lie the Caucasus, whose wild rivers and snowy peaks are virtually impassable. Two thousand years ago, though, Jason and his Argonauts entered these highlands seeking the Golden Fleece – a legend that DAVID ADAMS pursues on a vintage motorbike across Georgia and Azerbaijan. This is the land of vendetta and vodka (drunk from jerry cans); where fiery beacons muster horseback militia from miles around; where prospecting for river-gold is still done with a sheepskin…
A Georgian story relates how God, after having parceled out all the lands of the world to other nationalities, discovered the Georgians whom he had overlooked. The Georgians were in a typically festive mood and invited the Creator to join them in wine and song. God so enjoyed himself that he decided to give these merry and carefree people the one spot on earth he had reserved for himself – the valleys and hills of the Caucasus Mountains.
This is both God’s country and no man’s land, a place where east meets west. Blood feuds, tribal vendettas and mountain warfare are a way of life in what is called Transcaucasia. This is Georgia – the unconquered land. Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, even Boris Yeltsin were all defeated by the Caucasus. But Georgia is also a land of untold riches, the place where legendary heroes Jason and his Argonauts came in search of the Golden Fleece. Which is the reason why I’m here: where did the legend end and reality begin?
I’m sailing off the coast of Georgia, once a republic in the former Soviet Union, and I’m following in the wake of some of the world’s most intrepid explorers. Two and a half thousand years ago, a ship named the Argo journeyed to this coastline carrying Jason and his Argonauts. He came to answer a challenge that would be make him king of Greece; all that was required was to journey to a land beyond the ends of the earth and bring back a Golden Fleece.
A modern lighthouse now marks the mouth of the Rioni River, the waterway that took the adventurers inland. Beyond is the port of Poti, a sleepy little trading town where I hope to find my own version of the Argo. Trailing through the overflowing stalls of cabbage and onion, I see her, she is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, she’s blue, she’s shiny and she’s Russian, but is she for sale?
Busting with character, she is a 1983 Russian Dnepia motorbike with sidecar, a notoriously cantankerous creation of the final years of Soviet engineering. Her owner lounges on the sidecar – a ‘for sale’ sign in Georgian tied to the handlebars. With neither Georgian nor Russian, my attempts at negotiation are going nowhere when suddenly and unexpectedly, into my life strolls Iya – the girl who is to be my translator, negotiator, guardian angel and expert in all things Georgian for the next two weeks.
With little enthusiasm, the burly owner eventually parts with his chariot for 2,000 Georgian Lari and as he takes us through the subtleties of Georgian motorcycle maintenance, I ask Iya if she would consider being my guide to the Jason and the Argonauts legend. Trained as an ethnologist, Iya, like almost all Georgians, knows the legend of the Golden Fleece intimately.
The Black Sea coast of Georgia is blessed by a Mediterranean climate, and summers are warm, lush and green – the elegant avenues of oak, elm and poplar trees along the roads giving these lands a decidedly European feel. Soon we cross over Rioni River and past the legendary spot where the Argonauts are came ashore around two and a half thousand years ago, and an hour later motor into Kutaisi, capital of the ancient kingdom of Colchis.
Colchis was the name the Greeks gave to this part of the world, the name Georgia came later, a corruption of the Arabic Gergi. According to the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, it was in Kutaisi that the Golden Fleece was kept. Though with the arrival of such a formidable bunch of heroes, the King hid the fleece in an enchanted glade. Before Jason could claim it, the King set the adventurer two challenges: the first was to defeat two fire-breathing bulls and then harness them to a plow and the second was to defeat the great dragon that guarded the fleece.
Today Kutaisi has lost much of its splendour, the great palace where the King put Jason to his challenges is now rubble and even the more recent palaces and grandiose buildings of the Soviet Era are empty and faded. However on the outskirts of town, there’s one that still holds vestiges of its halcyon days. Built over a thermal spring, the great Tskaltubo Spa was a palace of pleasure for the use of Russian generals and Communist party members alike. For years the Soviet hierarchy came from far and wide to wallow in the healing waters. The first to step in was the most infamous of all Georgians, Joseph Stalin – the monster that in the 1930’s and ‘40s was responsible for imprisoning and killing millions of people. Who knows what was said and decided as he relaxed with his generals and ministers. We needed only a little encouragement to plunge in, though bathing with Comrade Stalin must have been a curious affair, apparently he had a withered arm and two of his toes were supposedly fused together.
The myth records that Jason met both his challenges and as a reward he not only got the fleece, but the king’s daughter, Princess Medea in marriage. This is where myth gets a little unclear; one version says that he simply returned triumphant to Greece, while another suggests that he and the Argonauts continued east in search of adventure. My next step was to establish what truth lay in the existence of a Golden Fleece and to do that we must head for the Caucasus Mountains.
All along the precipitous road, small shrines mark the point of accidents. In each stands a bottle of vodka and a glass placed by the relatives and friends of the deceased, encouraging travellers to raise a glass to their loved ones. A hazardous tradition that must see a number of drunken well-wishers joining their departed friends in the ravines. We pass a heavily armed policeman guarding the road against bandits – only, a week ago a traveller had been kidnapped on the same road and a ransom demanded. Adding to the mix, fortified United Nations roadblocks keep the lid on a protracted territorial dispute between Russia and Georgia over the neighbouring region of Abkhazskaya.
For centuries Transcaucasian tribes have been at war with each other and in the remote valleys of Svaneti little has changed. Under spectacular rangers that soar to over 18,000 feet, we reach the capital Mestia, home of the warrior Svans – an ancient people who have lived in isolation up here for over 2,000 years, their origins are lost in time.
Unfortunately, much of the fighting was done amongst themselves. Svaneti is a land of vendetta and revenge, where male pride is measured in dead enemies. We walk through a local graveyard, with small portrait photographs on the headstones showing predominantly young, male faces smiling back at us, many holding a favoured weapon, each family plot heavily fenced off from a hated neighbour’s.
“All those faces, it’s incredible,” I say to Iya. “If only they had died for more worthwhile causes, but I suppose when you’re so cut off from the outside world, small disputes can get out of hand. So what is the reason for these vendettas?”
“Sometimes it’s a woman, or property like land or even a pig,” answers Iya. I obviously look incredulous, because she explains: “One vendetta started in 1950, when a pig crossed the border between one man’s land and his neighbour’s, and the two families have been feuding ever since…They killed one guy from another family only last year.” Seems like Sicily.
Over the centuries all this infighting has had an amazing effect on the skyline. Hundreds of tower strongholds were built – a retreat from vendettas that went out of control. The families would huddle on the top floor, under the rafters, while a guard would stay on the first floor. Food and livestock would be kept on the middle floors, so these families would survive a pretty long siege. And from the top floor, whose windows hung over the ground below, they could throw excrement or tar and fire arrows or bullets from them without risking much danger.
But the Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the First Century BC, noted another thing about the Svans. They used a sheep’s fleece to prospect for gold in nearby rivers…
Could this be the place that gave rise to the Jason legend? The rivers of the Caucasus mountains either run north into Europe or south into Asia Minor. For centuries, people in Georgian Transcaucasia have been gold prospecting in these rivers and streams. We head to the village of Leli, high in the Caucasian mountains, which is a gold prospecting village.
Leli, when we finally get there via more hair-raising roads, is tiny. Everyone knows everyone, so it doesn’t take us long to find a man named Gia: a local shepherd descended from a long line of gold prospectors. He spends much of his spare time panning the nearby rivers.
Gia, his father, his grandfather and probably all of Gia’s male ancestors prospected for gold in the same way: with a wooden sluice, padded with sheepskin. It’s an odd-looking box-like contraption, nearly a metre long, with the fleece at one end of it. If you place this sluice in a stream of fast running water and shovel in your slurry, in theory the lighter gravel should be swept over it and away, while the heavier gold sinks and gets caught in the fleece. Such a prize laden with alluvial gold would have shone like the sun and certainly been woven into legend.
We don’t do very well, but we do find tiny flecks of gold embedded in the fleece – only a patient man can make his fortune here, but perhaps Gia isn’t letting on where the gold really is. But we’re happy: there is a grain of truth (and gold) to the legend of the Golden Fleece.
In the Caucasus roads are few and far between and we exchange our Russian jeeps for horses and head east towards the province of Tusheti, one of the most remote regions of the Caucasus. Once again, the landscape is dotted with high towers. This time, however, they are not strongholds against vendetta, but high beacons – signal towers to give advance warning of enemy raiders, the Chechens. The Chechen border is just over the range. The last time these towers were used in conflict was in 1928.
Iya is taking me to meet a friend who lives with his family in a remote Tusheti village. In the summer months Levin and his father run sheep and goats to the summer pastures, and we’re here to help push the animals up to higher ground.
Like all Tusheti, Levin is a brilliant horseman, usually riding bareback – saddles are, as we Australians would say, for big Sheilas. Well, when in Georgia… It actually rides the same, but I feel like one of the boys.
For centuries Tushetian warriors have been chasing the Chechens away from their villages and flocks. Now they put their rough riding to more peaceful use. In a couple of days there’s a horse race – one of the wildest in the world. But first: vodka.
Early next morning, Levin shows us a rare and gruesome part of Tushetian history. Not far from the village are quarantine ‘vaults’, where people came if the Bubonic Plague swept through the valleys below. It’s actually a do-it-yourself cemetery; no gravediggers, no undertakers, probably not even last rites from the church. Because all those who had the Plague, came up here, crawled into a hole and waited to die. Bones are scattered all over the mountain-side holes. Sometimes family-members would brave contagion and bring food up to the unfortunate outcast, but more often the victim would be left alone.
We decide to leave this place of death and as we stand up, we see the tower-beacons are burning. It’s time for the great gathering on the plains below for a bit of insane horse-riding. I’m a bit hungover for this, but what the hell. Once a year in these valleys, horsemen gather from near and far for the race of the year. It’s said to be the roughest in the world. Part of the reason for this is that the spirits are prominent here: not just the pagan metaphysical ones, summoned with the help of a ram’s head, but also the liquid ones – vodka; drunk with reckless enthusiasm at 8AM from jerry-cans. These guys drink in bulk. Curiously, the prize for the race’s winner is a fleece.
We line up, my head swaying already from three good shots of ‘local’ vodka, and we’re off. Saddles are optional and I’m glad at this point that I chose to be a ‘big girls blouse’ and ride with saddle – most of the competitors don’t bother. Five miles of wild country and wilder riding lie in wait. Riders fall like ragged dolls into creeks, rivers and onto stony ground throughout the race and I’m amazed when I make it to the finish line intact. Well, finish line: it’s more a finish area, where the crowd waits. The race seems to peter out in chaos where drunken spectators and horses meet, sometimes rather violently. I come a respectful last, although I’m not too embarrassed, as these guys are without doubt the best horsemen I’ve ever seen.
And it’s more drinking, tall tales, dancing and eating until deep into the night. I think I’d better leave soon, if only for the sake of my health. Plus Iya must return to her work in the city, and I still have to follow the trail of Jason and his Argonauts.
Our route takes us past the Georgian capital Tblisi, where Iya lives and works. Tblisi, with its stunning castles, busy boulevards and Orthodox churches, has been the country’s capital for 1400 years. It has a turbulent history, and nostalgia summons me to a place I’ve been before: Parliament House where, as a young journalist, I got my first scoop.
Ten years ago, I was here at a time of revolution and renewal: when the new President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, declared independence from the crumbling Soviet empire. The euphoria of independence was, it turned out, to be short-lived. Only eight months later, Georgia was again embroiled in civil war. Today, eight years later, Georgia may be poorer but from what I’ve seen so far, it is at least more stable than before.
I’m now leaving Georgia behind and heading east, through Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea. After the border post, I realise I’m actually travelling on one of the oldest roads in the world: the Silk Road.
I head to the Azerbaijani town of Shaki, whose muezzin reminds me that the differences between Christian Georgia behind me and Muslim Azerbaijan before me couldn’t be more marked. I’m now on the final leg of my journey from the Black to the Caspian Sea. It doesn’t take long for the green of Georgia to make way for a desert Central Asian landscape. The myth about the Argonauts sailing down rivers here is wearing thin: I see no rivers and very little water.
This is the road to Baku – literally down the road, as the closer I get to the Caspian Sea, the further below sea level I go. The Caspian Sea is 90 feet – 27 metres – below sea level, and on its shores lies Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan. For over a thousand years, this area has been known for its oil. Like cloth, Baku oil was also traded along the Silk Road: oil for lamps, oil for embalming, oil for anything. It’s even said that the oil that anointed Jesus Christ may have come from here.
Today’s oil industry is a little more modern. Look out over the Caspian Sea from Baku, and you will see the bizarre sight of thousands of oil rigs, with flames shooting from their tops, dotting the seascape all connected by miles and miles of roadway. It resembles the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s movie Bladerunner. It is said that behind every oilrig lurks a Mafia syndicate, but the land-based rigs hide something more: vipers and valuable ones at that, because viper venom is used to make heart disease drugs. It’s also used as a coagulant for surgical operations, and someone has to milk the stuff from these snakes which are hard to see, tough to catch and unpleasant to milk. But one gram of viper venom sells for US$200, making it more valuable even than gold.
I’ve all but given up on ever finding clues about what really happened to Jason and the Argonauts, perhaps it was all just too long ago. Then I visit the rocks of Garbistan – and all my enthusiasm comes flooding back. Because these rocks are covered with rock carvings, made by humans who lived here 10,000 years ago. One shape in particular catches my eye: it is a ship. Much older than the Jason myth, I nevertheless wonder if perhaps here is another grain of truth that helped create the legend in the first place.
Though here on the shores of the Caspian, the myth of Jason converges with countless others, stories of Norsemen and earlier travellers that came to the Caspian down the great Volga River and across the sea from unknown lands. This elegant carving could have been made by the crews or travellers who journeyed through here from all points of the globe, for Transcaucasia is where east meets west – the cross roads of Asia.
I must say, I want to believe it, though the truth is never as romantic as myth. However behind the story of Jason and the Argonauts there was probably a real history, an adventure steeped in enough romance to keep me happy: a story of a group of brave men who risked all on an epic voyage to journey to the ends of the earth, make their fortunes and then live to tell the tale.