Text by Tinatin Mosiashvili

Journalist and tour guide

 

Facts: “You don’t need to wait for death to see Paradise—you can always come to Tusheti,” Tusheti resident Soso Babunaidze recently posted on his Facebook page. In Georgia, after having visited Kartli and Kakheti, Imereti and Guria, Meskheti and Adjara, Racha-Lechkhumi and Samegrelo, Khevi, Pshavi and Khevsureti—until we can also make it to currently occupied Abkhazia—consider going to Tusheti and Svaneti. Save these two regions for last, and plan two tours to Georgia, one for each. Similar to the rest of Georgia, the spirit of Tusheti and Svaneti is best reflected in their folk songs. Just Google and listen to two of them: the Lileo hymn to the sun performed by male Svans, and Lela Tataraidze’s How Beautiful Is Tusheti. Enjoyed them? To me, these two songs best represent these regions. Svaneti is tough, inapproachable just like the sun and the region’s mountains, while Tusheti embodies motherly warmth. Which one is better? I leave that up to you…

 

“Between Mount Caucasus and the Ceraunian Mountains there dwell the Tusci,” Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote as early as the 2nd century BC.

Nowadays, most Tushetians live in Zemo (Upper) and Kvemo (Lower) Alvani, though some are found in Tbilisi, and quite a number of them even abroad. Unlike their neighbors, Kakhetians, who pursue horticulture and are therefore tied to their land and vineyards, Tushetians have been herders, namely shepherds, since time immemorial. And that is probably why Tushetians, as pastoral nomads, easily adapt to foreign lands, unlike the residents of Kartli and Kakheti.

Still, no matter where Tushetians live, they do their best to visit their villages and shrines in summer, at least for the folk holiday of Atengenoba.

Tusheti is a unique Georgian region in that it is found entirely on the other side of the Caucasus, that is, in the North Caucasus. The main Caucasus mountain divide separates Tusheti from Kakheti, Pshavi, and Khevsureti, also from Chechnya and Dagestan.

According to the modern-day administrative divisions, Tusheti is incorporated into the Akhmeta Municipality of the Kakheti Region. The only road to Tusheti starts in Kakheti, stretching along the Stori Gorge, and, via the Abano Pass, leading to the North Caucasus.

The Abano Pass, just like Datvisjvari, is closed throughout winter, starting in October or November. So, until the road reopens, Tushetians rely solely on helicopters. Fortunately, in the recent years the authorities have been able to provide one flight per week throughout the winter.

Having said that, because of Tusheti’s hard living, only about 50 people, mostly elderly, live in the entire gorge. Once holiday season is over in the mountains, children are nowhere in sight. The last school in the region, in Omalo, was abolished years ago.

The region’s practically untouched virgin forests, full of pine and birch, along with alpine groves, rhododendron thickets, cliffs abounding with ibices, unique flora and fauna, glaciers, spread out below the magnificent peaks of Dakuekhi (Tebuli), Diklo, Borbalo, and Komito, all towering at 3200-4700 meters above sea level.

Of the 1,000 floral species found in Tusheti, eleven are endemic to Georgia and 230 to the Caucasus. As for fauna, the region boasts 60 species of mammals, almost 120 bird species, three reptiles, and one species per each amphibian and fish, including the endemic Caucasian grouse, Caucasian snowcock, and East Caucasian tur, also wild goats, deer, roe deer, chamois, bears, wolves, lynxes, and more.

To preserve Tusheti’s unique nature and culture, the entire region enjoys the status of a protected area, which includes a nature reserve, a national park, and conserved landscapes—all of which start as you cross the Abano Pass.

The headquarters of the protected area, bringing together an administrative building and a museum, is found at the entrance of Omalo.

Road and travel

Allocate at least 3-4 days to travel to Tusheti, maybe even more but not fewer—have mercy on yourself and Tusheti, too.

On your way from Kakheti’s administrative center Telavi to Tusheti, you’ll come across the Alaverdi Cathedral. An exceptional example of the Georgian Christian architecture of the early 11th century, Alaverdi is located in the Aloni Valley, in the Alazani Plain. I, for one, frequently drop by the cathedral together with my tour groups. Several clerics serve in Alaverdi.

Besides the cathedral and an amazing winery, the complex offers a nice rest area with a small restaurant and restrooms.

Next, we cross the Alazani River and enter the village of Kvemo Alvani, where we turn right and keep going until we reach the villages of Laliskuri and Pshaveli.

On your way from Kvemo Alvani to Laliskuri, you will encounter a place known locally as Takhtibogiri.

Back when traveling on horseback was customary, Tushetian horse riders would usually dismount once they reached Takhtibogiri, walking up to the Mijnis Kva (Boundary Stone), where they would commemorate Zezva Gaprindauli, a hero of the Battle of Bakhtrioni, by filled up their kantsi drinking horns with wine raising a toast to their valiant ancestor and his legendary horse. Arguably, Zezva’s gray horse is the only horse who is commemorated among the departed in a toast, and with good reason.

 

Information about road conditions is available on the hotline of the Road Department at

(995 32) 2 31 30 76.

 

The story of Zezva’s gray horse

Mountains have always been the traditional habitat of the Tushetians. It was only later that they expanded to settle in the plains. Legend has it that after the Battle of Bakhtrioni—in 1659, the Georgians rebelled against the Persian conquerors and attacked their stronghold known as Bakhtrioni Castle—King Teimuraz of Georgia decided to reward the Tushetians. Tushetian Zezva Gaprindauli, who had fought courageously alongside Pshav-Khevsurs and his fellow Tushetians, asked the king to grant his people valley winter pastures. Zezva said,

“Grant us the Tushetians lands as far as my horse can gallop down the Aloni Valley.”

The horse ran from the Bakhtrioni Castle and dropped dead by Takhtibogiri. The horse was given an honorable burial. “This is where a generation of Tushetians shall abide from this day on,” the king ordered. Thus, the Tushetians received the territories where the villages of Zemo Alvani and Kvemo Alvani are found today. “The Aloni Valley is a gift from Zezva’s gray horse,” Tushetians say.

Transport

While your guide is telling this story, the car approaches the village of Pshaveli, followed by a 72-kilometer road. But don’t let this short distance fool you—it will take at least 4 hours to cover it. Besides a helicopter, there are two modes of transport to travel to Tusheti, by jeep or by truck.

There is no public transport to Tusheti. Unless you hire a jeep in Tbilisi, you can catch a ride with one of the locals. Actually, it is advisable to team up with an experienced driver familiar with Tusheti.

Before entering the Stori Gorge—the road stretches alongside the Stori River—you can take some rest near a place called Sviana, where tables are installed so you can enjoy some snacks. Further down the road, you will see many streams and tables on the banks. It is hard to cover this uphill road in one fell swoop. In addition, it will break your heart to miss a chance of taking pictures.

Yet there is another heart-related test awaiting you where the road becomes especially difficult and requires a lot of caution. You will see many stones and crosses erected in memory of those killed in car accidents on this road.

“You’re hung up on the road like a Tushetian,” a Kakhetian saying goes. As my old and now regular host, Uncle Gogi—Gogi Ichuadze who owns Omalo 2005, a family-run hotel in Omalo—explains, no Tushetian embarks on a journey without supplicating the guardian angel of travelers and beseeching Elia Nakerali and Chikhale Khisostaveli, the Tushetian weather deities. Both at festive tables and on the road, Tushetians always commemorate travelers.

Both in the past and today, shepherds spend 3-4 days ascending the mountains from the plain, and vice versa. Shepherds encounter numerous problems like natural disasters, wild animals, and others. Historically, shepherding has been the main occupation in Tusheti. “The best of us are tending sheep,” Tushetian men love to say.

Once you enter the Stori Gorge, you lose your phone signal almost all the way to the pass. Some sections of the road are cut through cliffs, others run parallel to forested slopes, and then there are alpine meadows.

The construction of the first automobile road in Tusheti started in the 1930s under the supervision of Mose Azikuri and was completed in the late 1970s. From what I have heard, the road, even in the 1970s, led only to the pass. Even today, you can’t reach many villages by car, which is why a good horse has not lost its value in Tusheti.

Before the alpine meadows there is a left turn to the thermal mineral waters, a place called Torghvas Abano (Torghva’s Bath). Traditionally, it is here that Tushetians would stop to bathe, hence the name.

Torghvas Abano marks the beginning of vertiginous turns making it harder and harder for a car to proceed. Finally, we reach the Abano Pass at 2926 meters above sea level. It is always cold here, so make sure you have jackets with you. In summer in general, you will need a raincoat and a jacket in Tusheti.

Once you reach the pass, you are almost halfway to Omalo. It is customary to stop for some rest in those parts and, as Tushetians say, raise three toasts. Those visiting Tusheti for the first time are offered a shot of vodka, a baptism by fire, so to speak. Tone bread, Tushetian cheese, sausages, and so on are all packed in advance.

But do not make a mistake—don’t take pork sausage to Tusheti. If Tushetians do not mind enjoying pork shish kebob in the plain, they abstain from carrying pork in general and pork sausages in particular beyond the pass and they require their guests to respect this tradition. Pigs are taboo in Tusheti. Traditionally, even importing pork-based products is prohibited in Tusheti, let alone growing pigs. In the past, they even stashed pig leather moccasins somewhere in a tree hollow, put on cowhide footwear, and continued their path beyond the pass. Though hardly anyone wears moccasins nowadays, Tushetians are still very serious about this and other similar customs.

According to ethnologist Nugzar Idoidze, tabooing pigs is about much more than the influence of the neighboring Muslim tribes. The roots of this custom are found in the religious and philosophical views of the ancient pagan world.

From October to May-June, the road to Abano Pass is closed, which leaves Tushetians with a helicopter as their only hope. No electric power is supplied to Tusheti either. There was power in some villages under communist rule, but the grid was damaged at some point and neglected ever since. A small HPP operating in Shenako is the only exception nowadays.

After Abano Pass, the road stretches along the Khiso Alazani River. Our next rest area is in Samkhevi where the Chanchakhovani tributary flows into the Khiso Alazani.

Today, you will find a rangers’ cottage here and an information center during tourist season. There is also a table, so you can rest and have some snacks here. And there is a restroom as well.

I remember my first time here, at the turn of this century, when the newly established Tusheti National Park’s infrastructure was only being put into place, this hut and many hotels were under construction, with not nearly as many visitors around. Back then, I noticed food products, full bottles of beer, and whole packs of cigarettes just lying around in this place and further above, not even hidden to protect from the rain. I was told that the goods were perfectly safe because nobody would take any of it for their own personal use (!), and nobody ever entered even the homes that were unlocked year-round.

The number of tourists in Tusheti has increased, and I have not seen beer bottles left on the sides of the road since, though I have not heard of any crime reported here either. Guests are appreciated here, and everyone is safe, unless the honor of Tushetians is hurt (like insulting a woman or disrespecting a shrine).

 

Where the Alazani is born, or more about geography

Tusheti’s total area is 796 km2 at 900-4800 meters above sea level. The region’s structural basin is located on the north slope of the main Caucasian ridgeline.

“The Alazani is every river flowing in the mountains of Tusheti,” poet Alio Adamia writes. Tusheti is sandwiched between the Pirikita and Gometzris Alazani Gorges. The Kakheti Alazani River is born at nearby Mount Borbalo. The confluence of the Pirikita and Gometzris Alazani Rivers is known as the Tusheti Alazani, while after crossing over to Dagestan, it is called the Andiskou at first and then, after merging with the Avariskou, the Sulak River.

Tusheti consists of four communities: the Pirikita Community is incorporated in the Alazani Gorge, the Gometzri and Tzova Communities in the Gometzris Alazani Gorge, and the Chaghma Community in the confluence basin of both Alazani Rivers.

Kartvelian (Georgian) tribes have been living in these parts since time immemorial. Bronze artifacts discovered here testify that human beings had settlements in these territories as early as the 8th-9th century BC.

According to the 18th century historian Vakhushti of Kartli, Tusheti served as a refuge for those fleeing serfdom or blood enemies, as well as for those refusing to accept Christianity. Officially, Christianity was accepted in the 9th century, though pagan beliefs and rituals have survived to this day.

 

Atnigenobebi

In late July and early August, Tusheti is swarming with people. Before commencing scything activities, for two weeks after the 100th day after Easter, special village shrine celebrations are held in Tusheti, and pretty much every village has its own jvar-khati guardian and shrine.

This period of celebrations is known collectively as Atnigenobebi, and consists of various local feasts: Lasharoba, Kopaloba, Iakhsaroba, Maghaloeloba, Mariam Ghvtismshobloba, Khakhmatoba, Karatoba, Sakheo, Leles Tzminda Giorgoba, Tursiekhoba, and others. Every local celebration has its own host, or shulta, who is in charge of brewing Tushetian aludi beer and entertaining guests.

A celebration starts with a procession of the cross, followed by the cleric, known as the servant of the shrine, who blesses the aludi beer, the festive table, and the guests. The feast is all about joy, fun, and entertainment. Khatoba celebrations feature horseraces and the Korbeghela tiered performance with dancers standing on the shoulders of other dancers. Every guest is welcome to join in on the celebration, and many are treated to a lot of alcohol. Sometimes, feasting may escalate into a brawl, but fear not. The communists tried hard to break the old traditions and replace these celebrations with new made-up holidays like Omaloba, Shepherd’s Day, and the like, but to no avail—traditions have proved too strong.

 

Omalo

After the turn to Khiso, Tsokalto, and Kumelaurta, we find ourselves on the Omalo Plateau. Omalo is the administrative center of Tusheti. It is found at 1800-2000 meters above sea level, some 200 kilometers from Tbilisi, and 90 kilometers from Akhmeta.

Right at the entrance of the village of Omalo, the Agency of Protected Areas is nested in the grove to your left. Nearby you will also find a hotel.

This place is the beginning of Kvemo Omalo. It used to be called Omalos Boslebi (Omalo Cowsheds), because Tusheti’s population usually lived in the village proper in the summertime, while wintering over closer to their cowsheds on the edge of the village.

Almost every household in both Kvemo Omalo (Lower Omalo) and Zemo Omalo (Upper Omalo) hosts guests and runs a family-owned hotel, regardless of whether they spend all year or only summer here.

The Keselo Fortress looms over Omalo. It consists of several towers. Tradition has it that there used to be a 120-meter tunnel to deliver water to the fortress. Today, Keselo’s towers are branches of the Museum of Ethnography. It is here that ethnologist Nugzar Idoidze has displayed artifacts that he had been collecting in his home for years. I strongly recommend visiting this museum which sustains itself on donations. And you must meet with Nugzar Idoidze—if anyone knows anything about Tusheti, it’s him. I also recommend checking in to the Tushuri Koshki hotel.

In the early 1980s, Nugzar and Tsiala moved from the lowlands and settled in the mountains. Nugzar started teaching history at the Omalo boarding school and Tsiala became an elementary schoolteacher. They lived that way for 15 years, until their children grew up and the school shut down, which forced them to return to the lowlands. Today, Nugzar’s family still lives in the plains, but they are back in the mountains to host guests as soon as the tourist season starts.

 

An information center also operates here to provide you with information about Tusheti’s tourist routes, which you can also check on the website of the Agency of Protected Areas: http://apa.gov.ge/ge/eco-tourism/Trails/tushetis-turistuli-bilikebi-satesto?fbclid=IwAR1nTfardDDqmvtD786mQAZQG_SiDj9_bYWu4ye178gfbFASResCecTjqUA

Tower

In the past, the towers served the Tushetians as both residences and fortifications. The first floor, known as bashte, was reserved for cattle and women’s household activities. The cherkho top floor served as the men’s bedrooms and quarters in general. In between there were two floors, shua (middle) and zeshua (upper middle), where families resided.

Traditionally, houses in Tusheti were roofed with cobblestones. Under communist rule, however, they were replaced with tiles, slates, and tin sheets. Next to old towers and cobblestone houses, Finnish cottages sprang up to change the area’s appearance completely.

The region’s protected territories, mostly protected landscapes, include Tusheti’s villages, and an all-out effort is made to harmonize modern development and traditional architecture, but it does not always happen the way it should.

The so-called Great Migration from the mountains was another invention of the communist authorities. In the 1950s, nearly the entire population of Tusheti was herded into the lowlands, and their centuries-old mountainous lifestyle and farming traditions were intentionally uprooted. As a result, horticulture became nearly extinct, and what used to be flourishing terrace farms have now been all but erased by landslides and erosion.

The Great Migration also caused Tusheti’s nearly complete depopulation. Yet, according to scholar Sergi Makalatia, there must have been 7,268 people living here around 1930.

Back then, seven elementary schools operated in Tusheti’s 27 settlements, and their alumni continued their education at the Omalo boarding school.

For comparison, according to the 2014 census, there were fewer than 2,500 in Kvemo Alvani and about 3,300 in Zemo Alvani, making 5,700 residents in all.

Today, only 47 people live in Tusheti.

What to see?

We have already mentioned the Agency of Protected Areas and Keselo.

Beautiful churches have survived from the 13th century in Shenako, Bochorna, and Iliurta.

For the most part, visitors stay in one of the hotels in Omalo or other major villages, or tent-camp together, and from these bases take trips to different destinations in the course of 2-3 days. One such trip may include Shenako and Diklo, the villages of the Chaghma Community. For 4-day tours, I, for example, save this route for the final day.

The Dagestani border passes near Diklo. A couple of kilometers northeast of the modern-day village there are the ruins of an old village and an ancient fortification. And it is here where the Georgian-Russian border lies.

Shenako is a special village in that it best reflects the village/cowshed tradition described earlier. Across from the village, you will find cowsheds, vegetable patches, and hayfields. The village boasts the finest cultivated lands in all Tusheti.

In the same vein, you will see the most beautiful balconies with ornamented balustrades. On your way down to the shrine, make sure you know which path is reserved for women.

In Shenako, I recommend renting a room from Kako and Elene Bolkvadze. Their family-run hotel, Shenakoshi, is exceptional in all Tusheti. Your hosts will treat you to locally produced food and homemade dairy products.

In the late 1970s, this family returned to the mountains to stay and pursue farming.

If you feel that a 4-day marathon is not enough to see enough of Tusheti, I recommend adding a few extra days in Shenako and Diklo.

In the Chaghma Community, you can also visit the villages of Tsokolta and Kumelaurta. Another nice route can be taken from Kumelaurta to Lake Oreti (Udziro).

After having passed through birch woods, you reach alpine groves, and then Lake Oreti at 2,600 meters above sea level.

The route itself is not difficult, and the path is graveled. All you need is a pair of comfortable shoes and a supply of water, also a raincoat and warm clothes.

 

You can take a car to Kumelaurta, and then walk and ride a horse for 6 kilometers. To rent a horse, you can call Khebe at 598 28 93 89.

Gometzri Gorge

My advice is to dedicate at least one day to the Gometzri Gorge in Tusheti, where the Gometzri (Tusheti) Alazani River flows.

The Gometzri Gorge incorporates the villages of Bochorna, Dochu, Gogrulta, Vestomta, Bukhurta, Iliurta, Beghela, Jvarboseli, Vakisdziri, Alisgori, Verkhovani, and Koklata. In summer, especially during Atengenobebi celebrations, the area receives many visitors. In winter, however, only a couple of locals remain.

“Bochorna, 2,345 meters above sea level, the highest village in Europe,” reads the sign erected a few years ago near the first village, Bochorna.

Irakli Khvedaguridze, aged 78, is an experienced and skilled doctor. He is the hope of many Tushetians, and it is by Doctor Irakli’s merit that the village of Bochorna is reviving.

Jvarboseli and Verkhovani are the last villages in the gorge. From here, the most daring drivers venture into the neighboring gorge of Tzovati. This year, though, we were given yet another promise to build a road to Tzovati. The gorge includes now depopulated villages, such as Indurta, Tzaro, and others. Nowadays, people do not live in Tzovati, and only herdsmen herd their sheep or cows there.

As a rule, the only way to get to Tzovati is on horseback or on foot, which will take you one day.

If you ascend from the side of Koklata, and keep going, the footpath will take you to Alaznistavi, from where, via Borbalo, you can reach Ukana Pshavi. This scenic route passes through feral landscapes, and the trip takes a few days.

In the Pirikita Alazani Gorge

Beso Elanidze is from Dartlo where, years ago, he established a hotel complex called Samtsikhe. He never lacks visitors. If you decide against renting a room, you can always order khinkali dumplings or just a cup of coffee or tea in the outdoor café.

The Pirikita Alazani Gorge consists of the villages of Chigho, Dartlo, Dano, Chesho, Parsma, and Girevi.

Girevi is the starting point of another exciting tourist route, a footpath to Khevsureti, known as the Atzunta trail. It is quite comfortable, graveled, and you can take it on your own, though I do recommend teaming up with an experienced guide.

 

You can take a car to Kumelaurta, and then walk and ride a horse for 6 kilometers. To rent a horse, you can call Khebe at 598 28 93 89.

Where to stay overnight?

There are many family-owned hotels in Tusheti. I have already provided information about some of them. Overnight accommodation costs 20-30 GEL (for exact charges, please contact hotel owners), and daily accommodation with 2 or 3 meals a day is 60-80 GEL.

You can also check out the website of the Agency of Protected Areas: http://apa.gov.ge/ge/eco-tourism/hotels/tushetis-sastumroebi?fbclid=IwAR1fOV9ATpDljhXIs2VWnNwGeYVtC7E_t8xrI3uqx32B6EOoa3IaeY7TfkU

Food

You can count on delicious meals served in Tusheti. Most of the ingredients are commissioned by restaurateurs from the lowland, which is why the prices here are slightly off for Georgia in general. You can order khinkali dumplings, as well as lunch or dinner, at family-run establishments.

Hotels serve traditional Tushetian breakfast dishes, such as khavitzi or kva (barley kumeli), also Tushetian tea using savory, various herbs, or rhododendron.

Make sure you try traditional Tushetian sheep or cow cheese, Tushetian-style khinkali dumplings, and kotori cheese bread.

If your visit coincides with khatoba folk celebrations, do not miss the opportunity to enjoy local aludi beer.

Because Tushetians live mostly in Alvani, that is, in Kakheti, most of them pursue viticulture and viniculture, and they will be more than happy to treat you to homemade wine. Your hosts are most likely to have some homemade chacha grappa as well. Upon your request, they can also serve hot vodka.

Communication and payment

You may come across markets here and there in Tusheti, where you can buy a variety of goods, mostly beverages and food products, though finding everything you may need will be very difficult, so I recommend shopping in Tbilisi or Telavi.

Public restrooms are few and far between, mostly near rangers’ cottages.

I recommend having cash on you during your trip to Tusheti. Paying with a card will be very difficult.

Work on supplying Tusheti with the internet is in full swing, though there are still some villages with no phone or internet signal.

“Four days is too much! Two days will do!” I have heard from both Georgian and foreign tourists. Later, however, they change their minds and say, “Maybe we should stay a day or two more...”

Tusheti is certainly worth spending your vacation days, let alone weekends or holidays. After all, Tusheti is Paradise on Earth.