The Shepherds' Return

RFE/RL photographer Amos Chapple takes the hard path back to the highlands with eastern Georgia's mountain shepherds.

Every year around early June, as the grasses of Kakheti are baked dry by the spring sun, the region’s shepherds round up their flocks and head for the mountains.

As they begin the grueling journey to their alpine station, I join Soso Ivanishvili…

...and Gia Girgitov, the joint owners of a flock of around 300 sheep.

Several of the men’s friends and relatives, like 17-year-old Dato, also help with the migration.

As the flock enters the cliff-hugging Tusheti road, Gia crosses himself next to a roadside memorial. “God is stronger here in the mountains," he tells me. "When you’re a shepherd, often there’s no one else around, so we talk with God.”

Spring lambs do their best to keep up, but several collapse with exhaustion and are stuffed, bleating, into saddlebags.

Lunch on the road includes a bucket of cottage cheese (top left) and “chocolate dip” (top right) made from milk mixed with cocoa and boiled down to a thick paste. Along with the food is the ever-present bottle of chacha (left), made from fermented grape skins.

The fiery home-brewed liquor (the men say theirs is around 55 percent alcohol) is swigged from the sawn-off neck of a soft-drink bottle...

and washed down with spring water served in the heel of the same bottle.

As the men finish up, the dogs are thrown some bread.

But there’s harsh punishment for the largest male of the pack when he attempts to steal a younger dog’s crust.

As the march continues up the winding Tusheti road, the temperature drops. But with no feed for the sheep, the men need to move quickly.

An exhausted lamb, which later died. The flock would lose three lambs and one sheep by the end of the journey.

As rain starts to patter down, the men unroll two salvaged political posters (of Georgia’s prime minister, who resigned on June 13) and hunker down for the night.

Soso, who shares his nickname with Josef Stalin, uses a leafy twig to scoop the scum off a dinner of boiled sheep meat.

Water comes from a spring that the men insist is clean. But as I reach for a swig of water, the light from my iPad reveals two large frogs mating in the silty puddle.

As the flock looks on, a sheep that died of exhaustion is butchered for the seven dogs, who snap and twist like sharks to get their share of the meat.

The men sleep through a radio playing classic Georgian crooners.

Caucasian sheepdogs don't help with herding (they lag behind like fed-up teenagers on the long march) but earn their keep by protecting the flock from wolves and bears.

Wolves kill sheep on the spot, while bears often grab sheep and carry them off under one arm in a kind of surfboard grip. The shepherds say the bears lope into the wilderness to tear the sheep apart in seclusion.

Before heading into the mountains, Gia witnessed a single bear lunge at his flock eight times in one day, eventually carrying off one sheep amid uproar from the defeated dogs.

At first light, Gia and Soso have gathered the flock and are already on the move. The younger shepherds emerge late from their crinkly shelter. The path up the mountain will go directly up the slope in the background.

Gia hacks out a path through crunchy snow for the animals to follow. The shepherds tell me driving the sheep must be done “softly softly”: If the shepherds are too insistent on a particular route, the sheep can get spooked and take a different path.

As the flock gains altitude, the path becomes so steep that dislodged rocks bound down the slope, cracking against tree trunks on the way down. Gia leads the flock alone as the other men head back to the camp to prepare the horses.

Gia comes from a line of mountain shepherds. He says he is tired of the loneliness of the work (unlike Soso, whose wife and children wait for him in the valley, Gia is single) but enjoys the freedom it offers. Once, he tells me, he had a sudden urge for cake while high on a mountain station. “I picked up my stick and started walking through the night. The next morning, I burst through the door of my parents’ house in the village and they thought something terrible had happened. I just said, 'No, no, I just need something sweet.' So I ate my cake, licked my fingers, then headed back out the door.”

When the sheep get above the tree line, they eagerly fall to munching on the lush alpine grass.

As the sheep graze, Gia drives his staff into the steep ground and snoozes. The dogs are unable to get comfortable on the slippery slope…

...though one of the younger dogs finds a snug solution.

Then suddenly the temperature plunges and clouds swoop into the valley. When lightning flashes nearby, the sheep freeze, as they always do in thunderstorms, and refuse to move on.

As thunder ripples up the valley, the rain turns into hail. It’s a miserable scene, and Gia’s jersey is soon soaked through. When the wind picks up, he makes the decision to scramble back down the path to shelter.

After Gia retreats, the sheep and the dogs to guard them are left on the mountain face under the freezing rain. This shivering little lamb soon died, apparently of hypothermia.

After the rain has lightened to drizzle and Gia has changed into dry clothes, he and the other shepherds lead the packhorses back up the cloud-bound mountain.

Gia is clearly feeling the strain after scurrying up and down the mountain. But he soon leaves to gather up the sheep once more.

Finally, in the gloom of evening, the last of the animals and men arrive, soaked and freezing, at the hut.

Inside, the skeleton of a dog that got lost during the 2017 autumn migration lies where he starved to death.

Dato huddles around a sizzling, hopeless fire, before giving up and opening up the chacha, which everyone eagerly knocks back.

And the next day the sun rises on a dry, warm morning.

As Gia releases the packhorses to graze the easy green slopes…

...the sheep need no encouragement to do the same.

There’s still plenty of work to be done to ready the base for the coming summer. But for now the men can take a breather in clear weather. Not all of them are looking forward to the months of isolation. As I leave, Gia has a last request of me: “Let the ladies out there know I'm single, and I'm a decent guy.”


That was the journey up. Click here for Amos Chapple's record of the shepherds coming down the same mountains in the autumn of 2017.