Getting away from it all in Tusheti, Georgia

Train; bus; plane; bus; metro; marshrutka (minibus); taxi; four-wheel-drive – and after about 27 hours travel and almost no sleep I made it to Tusheti, the remotest part of Georgia, across the watershed of the High Caucasus near Daghestan and Azerbaijan. It can only be reached by a four-wheel-drive-only track across a virtually 3,000-metre-high pass that is closed by snow from mid-October to May. I’m here to research a sixth edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia, and it’s only because I’m huddled in my chilly room without wifi and with just one dim energy-saving light bulb (powered by solar panels that clearly aren’t seeing enough sunlight) that I’m writing this.

Georgia’s other two mountain areas are far more accessible – Kazbegi (or Stepantsminda) on the Georgian Military Highway, the road to Russia, and Svaneti with a road that was totally rebuilt in 2011, cutting the driving time from Zugdidi to Mestia from 6 hours to under 3 – and both are getting pretty busy. Svaneti in particular is easily reached from Kutaisi airport, Georgia’s booming low-cost airline hub, and is attracting considerable numbers of hikers seeking some seriously tough back-country adventure. There are also many new guesthouses in the main town, Mestia, and in other villages, which are busy with tourists seeking a less strenuous, more cultural, experience. Tusheti, however, remains remote and mysterious, and will do so as long as the road remains so rough (no, you can’t fly in, short of chartering a helicopter – while Mestia does have an airport). But now I hear of plans to drive a tunnel through the mountains from Pankisi (which until recently had the reputation of being a hideout for Chechen guerrillas and jihadists, because it has a small Muslim population, although most are peaceful Sufis). If this were ever to happen, it would be a disaster for Tusheti – it would be flooded with tourists, many just on day trips, yet large hotels would be built, and the virgin pine forests would doubtless be plundered. They hope for World Bank funding for the tunnel – if there’s any sign of that, I will be leading the campaign to block it.

When I first went to Svaneti at the end of the 1990s it had a well-earned reputation for lawlessness and banditry, and only a few carefully guided tourists ever went there – the idea that we would now be wanting to protect other areas from Svaneti-style over-touristification would have been utterly laughable. But here we are.

Anyway, it’s bright and cold and very beautiful here – there’s snow already at the end of September and more is falling on the pass. The guesthouse owners are closing up two weeks earlier than usual, nailing up tarpaulins over their balconies and all other openings, and heading down to their winter homes in Kvemo Alvani (where they also grow all the vegetables that are brought up to Tusheti in summer). Many of them can drive down, but all the cows, horses and sheep have to walk over the pass and down, one of the last great transhumances that used to be common in mountain areas around the world but have now almost vanished. They follow the 4WD road, with vehicles forcing their way through, and are still on the move in the dark at 8pm with a couple of herders on foot, while others on horses go ahead and build fires at improvised campsites. Sheep leave first, at the end of September, with the cows and horses following; it takes them three days from Omalo in Tusheti to Kvemo Alvani, where they stay until November. Then they  walk on to the Vashlovani area near the border of Azerbaijan, taking a week, and return to Kvemo Alvani at the end of April. Again the sheep leave first for Tusheti, at the end of May (as soon as it’s possible to hike over the pass), and the cows and horses follow soon after – there’s a great video on YouTube of horses sliding down on their haunches on the snowy slope from the pass. It was a great privilege to see this, and if anyone wants to travel with the herders I can put them in touch with someone who can arrange it.

PS I have just seen that a cheese-maker from Tusheti has won first prize at Slow Food’s cheese festival in Italy – which provides an interesting link to my previous post on Parma and Italian food!

The Abanos Pass

PPS I did also see sheep being taken south over the pass from Kazbegi, so here’s a photo of that, just for the record –