Even though it is July, banks of snow still dot the mountainside as we hike along the Alazani River into the bottom of Pirikiti Valley, Tusheti. Across the river, medieval stone towers in two tiny hamlets cling to the steep slopes. It feels as if we at the ends of the earth in the High Caucasus Mountains.
Dartlo is the larger of the two villages. Located on the riverbank, its architecture includes the traditional fortresses dating back to the 12th century, slate houses with roofed balconies as well as more “modern” stone structures. Some years ago the World Bank funded a project to restore the village and many of the structures have been reconstructed.
A sign banning women from approaching is prominently displayed at the ruins of a church, surrounded by barbed wire. It is unusual to see this type of sign on a church; normally it is the pagan shrines (Khati) that are thus marked. However, one once stood here, making the ground itself off-limits to women.
Immediately behind the church twelve stones stand in a semi-circle, the remains of an ancient court where 12 elders once met to dispense justice in the community. The plaintiff and the defendant sat on two stones before them. The judges resolved most cases through negotiation and compromise, but periodically, more draconian measures were required. Banishment of the defendant from the community was the worst punishment that could be meted out.
Even though archeologists believe that this area of the Caucasus was settled between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago, very little research or excavation has taken place here. Some Bronze Age artifacts as well as stones covered with petroglyphs have been found. Many of the slate houses include such stones here and there in the walls. There are a number of common themes among the petroglyphs: a pair of hands protecting a circle, circles within circles, a flaming tail on a star, or a man on a horse.
In Tusheti horses are considered as part of the family as well as being the primary means of transportation. Special songs and toasts are dedicated to famous horses, and wild horse races follow all Tusheti festivals and even funerals.
We stay at the Samtsikhe Guest house, owned by Beso Elanidze. It is the largest we find in Tusheti, able to house 40 guests in six stone and wood buildings. The rooms are similar to other guesthouses in the region, twin beds with thick wool quilts and a shared bathroom. This one has electricity and a nice, rustic, open-air café overlooking the rushing stream. Orange lichen covers the rocks around the café. Our guide tells us that the women of the village boil the lichen to dye the wool they use to make traditional handicrafts – woolen hats, socks and mittens.
Long communal tables with rounds of tree trunks for chairs line the café. Massive amounts of food appear – khachapuri, khinkali, stuffed peppers, eggplant in walnut sauce, chicken in walnut sauce, and the ever-present tomato and cucumber salad — accompanied by the customary toasts with wine or chacha, Georgia’s equivalent to firewater. Our travel companions are a group of Czech hikers who stop by to have a warm meal before setting up camp and a group of Russian visitors making their way through Tusheti.
A steep, difficult hike away, the even smaller hamlet of Kvavlo sits above Dartlo. A single 12th century watchtower looms above the skyline, its roof shaped like a pyramid. The village is built on the rocky slope of the mountain with stone paths connecting the various houses.
Further along the mountainside, a spectacular pagan Khati, adorned with horses, sits in the village of Dano.
The following morning we set out for the village of Parsma, the farthest point in our journey through Tusheti. Parsma is farther up the Pirikiti Valley at about 7,000 feet above sea level. We drive north on what can only be described as a single lane, dirt trail, so narrow that it is almost impossible to turn the vehicle around. On one side, sheer drop-offs fall to the river below while on the other the mountain looms high with slate outcrops and plenty of evidence of rock and mudslides.
Our driver, David skillfully navigates over smaller obstacles and through rushing rivers. Once he asks us to get out as he navigates a particularly nasty mudslide, his car leaning precariously into the ravine.
Eventually a massive landslide stops our progress. Fortunately we are fairly close to Parsma and are able to hike up a very steep slope and over the top of the crest to the village. It provides us with the best photographic opportunities of our trip to Tusheti.
Five towers line the mountainside. Beneath them, traditional slate houses are clustered around a small spring. We picnic in a field of buttercups high on a cliff above the river where flocks of sheep crisscross the remains of a snowfield.
This is the only place in Tusheti where we actually see wildlife – a pair of gryphons and some ravens devouring the carcass of a sheep. We hear but are unable to photograph cuckoos that flit among the houses. Even though this area is famed for its biodiversity, it seems what few animals remaining after the Soviet occupation have retreated deep into the wilderness.
We return to the car down a steep path. As we walk two Tush horsemen ride by, carrying hoes and shovels, on their way to clear the landslide. We find them again further down the mountain, digging away, a task akin to emptying a swimming pool with a teaspoon.
Now, however, we have to drive back the way we came. David reverses the car back down the path until he can go no further safely. It takes him about 20 maneuvers, with no room for error, before the car faces the right direction.
It is a stark reminder that we are completely at the mercy of nature, at the ends of the earth in Tusheti.
IF YOU GO
Our travels in Georgia were organized by Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge)
Beso Elanidze at the Samtsikhe Guest House may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org , Tel. +599-118-993.
For more images of Tusheti, see the Recent Additions gallery at www.allegriaphotos.com