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Caucasian Daze (Part 5/9) - Georgia: Tusheti - Hitch-hiking to Paradise

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Defensive tower above Omalo, Tusheti region, Georgia
Defensive tower above Omalo, Tusheti region

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.

Truck, hitch-hiking, Tusheti region, Georgia
Cheap truck - a 70km journey took six hours

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.

Verdant valley on the road to Omalo, Tusheti, Georgia
Verdant valley on the road to Omalo

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.

Road to Omalo, Tusheti region, Georgia
Snow in July still visible - Omalo is at a height of 2000m

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.

Scattered dwellings near to Omalo, Tusheti, Georgia
Scattered dwellings near to Omalo

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.

Orthodox church near Shenako, Tusheti, Georgia
Orthodox church near Shenako

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, st