Updated: Mar 31, 2019
Leaving Kakheti - By Truck
From Kakheti, which is a kind of wide, flat expanse sandwiched between two mountain ranges, you are always looking up to the surrounding Caucasus Massif and thinking: “I want to be up there.” The heat of Kakheti, combined with the right amount of precipitation, accounts for the perfect conditions for grape growing, and you are surrounded by fields of vines as you travel north towards the mountains – largely depopulated, a few small villages scattered here and there. Alaverdi is the name of the place to catch a shared taxi to the spectacular yet relatively unknown mountain area to the north called Tusheti. Unfortunately for me, I had missed all the taxis, which it seems had set off early in the morning, and was left with hiring my own Lada Niva 4x4 for about 200 Lari (80 pounds) – or hitching – there being no buses.
Of course, I took the second option. So it was that I found myself sitting in the front of a Soviet-era green goods delivery truck half an hour later, having negotiated a fee of 20 Lari (8 pounds), surrounded by random bags of food, drink and supplies for the locals who live up there; several other locals – I presume they were either workers or simply people living somewhere up in the mountains – had cadged a lift on the back of the open-top truck, and were standing up in the back. It’s only 70km to the main tourist village of the region, called Omalo, but the road is one of the worst in Georgia, snaking up the Abano Pass, which reaches 2900m, via a series of hair-raising switch-backs. The truck started off slowly, and was down to 20km an hour just a few kilometers out of Alaverdi. As the road started to head skyward, it moved down the gears, and was soon moving at barely more than walking pace.
The road, which had started out as rutted but tarmacked, turned into a potholed, bumpy track, and the truck had slowed down to about 10km an hour. Each time it reached a hair-pin bend, it had to negotiate it in two stages; it’s turning circle being about the width of a football pitch. So, it had to move slowly forward to the edge of the road, reverse, and turn again, proceeding in this painfully slow way up the mountain. There were over a hundred hair-pins. Squashed in the front of the cab with two fellow passengers we had picked up, sweating and thirsty, jolted around, and holding my breath every time we approached a tight corner with a steep drop beneath it – of which there were many – this was turning into the toughest journey of the trip so far. Every time a 4x4 went past us (I had clearly missed the correct place to catch them) I was left cursing under my breath. I could only imagine how the guys standing up in the back were feeling. The saving grace was the surrounding scenery, which was utterly breathtaking. The beautiful weather allowed great views over the surrounding mountains and valleys, which were wild and verdant. There were some shady hollows where packed-in snow and ice had survived the summer; on distant hillsides were specks of white, which as we moved closer turned out to be herds of sheep, grazing at high altitude.
Just when I thought we were making some progress, and soon after we had crested the highest point of the pass, we got caught behind a bulldozer, which was literally moving at no more than a snail’s pace. The road was not wide enough to let us past, and there were no passing places, so we just had to crawl behind for about 20 minutes. Very sensibly, the driver decided to stop for lunch at this point – about 5 hours after we had left Alaverdi – and we all got out by a stream for an impromptu picnic of bread, goat’s cheese, tomatoes, pickles and tinned sprats, washed down with warm beer from plastic bottles and a few shots of vodka. A simple meal, but probably the most welcome break on the trip.
Arrival in Omalo - Mountain Paradise We were in Omalo two hours later, and as I hopped out of the driver’s cab, I swore to myself I would never hitch a ride in a truck ever again. I’d set off at 11am and it was now 6pm. I’d spent seven hours doing a 70km trip. Not to worry; as I put down my rucksack I looked round and saw a paradise. A wide prairie of grassland, surrounded by high mountain peaks, Omalo lay in a protective hollow, above it a hillside which comprised the upper part of the village. It felt unreal to see a community existing at this altitude, this far from civilization. The road I had just traveled along to get here had indeed only been built in 1978, so until then the locals would have been almost totally cut off for more than half of the year. The village still has no electricity supply, and most houses have no indoor water supply.Washing and all other ablutions are done via outside (cold) taps, often shared.
The village is in fact only inhabited these days for the summer months – the locals go looking for work down in the valley during the winter months, and only a few hardy families stay up to brave the winter. Surprisingly, the temperature when I arrived was only a few degrees less than in Alaverdi, but I imagine it must be brutal in the middle of January. I found a place to stay – very basic, (outside toilets, mattress on the floor) but homely, and with meals provided. This was pretty much a necessity, as there were no shops around. It was as basic as you can imagine – and as far removed from modernity as is possible. The Soviet way of life and politics barely made an impression on this area. People lived in those times as they have always done, and do now – herding, working the land, making handicrafts to survive. Animism is the religion of these parts, even Christianity hasn’t penetrated very much. This belief - religion - is one that invests all living (and some not) things with spirituality and religious significance. Not unreasonable in many ways, and no more unlikely than several other religions I could care to mention. Significantly, it does away with churches, priests and so on. Churches, though they exist here, are decked out with animist offerings inside and out such as little piles of stones and animal bones.
All Along the Watchtower
I walked up to Upper Omalo on my first evening, just above the village. Dominated by five solid stone watchtowers, it’s like - and indeed is - something straight out of Medieval Europe. Built to guard against marauding intruders from the north – the wild regions of Dagestan and Ossetia lie just a stone’s throw away – they are like ancient sentinels, stern and foreboding, and quite unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. Looking out over sheer hillsides to the north, they must have been pretty effective at repelling attacks and giving forewarning of approaching armies. I just sat down and admired the view as the sun was setting on the horizon beyond the towers - a moment of perfection, which made that truck journey (almost) worth it.
I met some English guys up there doing pretty much the same thing, and though they hadn’t come up there the painful way I had, they’d still had a long hard trip getting there, so it was a kind of moment of group appreciation of the sumptuous surroundings. We spent the evening getting pleasantly drunk together on locally bought home-made wine by the light of oil lamps after a more than acceptable meal in our hostel, and it turned out they had just come from Nagornno-Karrabach – where I was headed soon – and where they had been on a mine-sweeping mission. I questioned them about the place, really interested in the politics, having heard about it this little-known (to the outside world) but incendiary region in these parts. They said it was beautiful but tragic, and I was inclined to believe them. I slept the sleep of the dead that night, addled by alcohol and utterly exhausted from the trip.
The next day, following another impressive breakfast, we decided to explore the surrounding valleys. They set off earlier than me, and we agreed to meet at a little village called Shenako, 8km distant. I set off in what I thought was the right direction from the village, but after about ten minutes reached an army checkpoint and was told to stop in no uncertain terms by a pretty gruff-looking soldier, who had had his eyes trained on the surrounding mountains with a pair of binoculars. I was asked to produce my passport, was questioned where I had been, where I was going and where I was staying. Luckily, they let me go – after calling somebody to check my passport was valid – and pointed me in the right direction. It was a reminder of the tight security in this region and the proximity of hostile states. Russia is an enemy, but the southern states are lawless and considered a terrorist threat – and these mountain corridors are a potential way in for criminals. As a tourist, wondering into the wrong territory in these parts is also not recommended – in 2006, a group of German tourists did just that just east of here. They were kidnapped, ransomed, and then never seen or heard of again. I went on my way, and was soon on the right track. The scenery everywhere was stunning, and I was blessed with blue skies and the clearest air I can ever remember; pure and fresh, every breath felt good.
Old habits die hard
I reached Shenako after a couple of hours pretty taxing hiking, down into a deep ravine and back up the other side, and met the guys in an even more remote village than Omalo, which was crowned by a little white-washed monastery. Beyond it, an ancient sacrificial altar, covered in furs and bones. Proof that animism is not rejected but embraced and combined with Christianity in these parts, which I think is quite pragmatic. Old habits (and beliefs) die hard here. We hiked on for a few more kilometers to the next village, Dartlo. Another cluster of stone towers, even more impressive than those in Omalo, overlooked by the single tall lookout tower of Kvavlo on the hill 350m above. Just stunning. It felt special just being in this part of Georgia; an area so remote that most visitors come by helicopter (several flew over our heads during the day). We reached the Russian border, where there were two rather bored looking soldiers on duty, and were told in Russian not to go any further.
A little stone painted red, white and blue like the Russian tricolor marked the border; there was a grave of a young boy who had died five years previously. We asked them what had happened. Shot by Russian border bandits, apparently; another reminder of how hostility can flare up here from time to time. I gazed over the endless snow-peaked mountains and regretted not being able to continue – the traveler’s urge to see what is around the next corner. Unfortunately, in the Caucasus, there are several dead-ends and blind alleys, making travel difficult and time-consuming. This was the second time I’d approached the Russian border – the other time being near Kazbegi – and wished I could have seen what was beyond. Instead, we turned back, and two later I turned back, yet again, to Tbilisi – back down the mountain, this time in a comfortable 4x4, shared with a couple of Israelis. Though I loved Georgia, I had Azerbaijan on my mind. I wondered if it could match the beauty that I'd seen so far. If the roads ever lead back to this magical place I'll be a happy man - just as long as it's not on the back of a truck.
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This blog is part of a series. Please see the previous/next parts here: