Tag Archives: Tusheti

The Ends of the Earth, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti

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.

Remains of the winter, Dartlo, Tusheti

Snowbank, Dartlo, Tusheti

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.

Ruins of church, Dartlo, Tushet

“No women allowed.”

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.

Rock carving on house, Dartlo, Georgia

Mysterious stone petroglyph , Dartlo

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.

Towers in Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti

Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti, Georgia

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.

Delicious Georgian food, Dartlo

Dartlo Dinner

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.

Lichen is used to make dye, Tusheti

Lichen-covered slate, Parsma, Tusheti

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.

Clearing a landslide_DSC9694(LR&C)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.

Sheep on the snow, Tusheti

Sheep crossing a snow bank, Tusheti

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 beselanidze@yahoo.com , Tel. +599-118-993.
For more images of Tusheti, see the Recent Additions gallery at www.allegriaphotos.com

 

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

The Road to Tusheti, Georgia

Hairpin bends of the Abano Pass, Tusheti, Georgia

Driving down from the Abano Pass, Tusheti

Tusheti is one of Georgia’s most remote provinces, hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains on Georgia’s remote northeast border with Daghestan and Chechnya. It is a place of wild, natural beauty where a few villages cling to the heights, where medieval castles, defensive towers and pagan shrines abound.

Even in June the winter snows remain along the Tusheti Road

Snow-banks along the Tusheti Road

The inhabitants are a hardy people who continue to live as their ancestors have done for thousands of years, albeit with the addition of a few modern conveniences like solar panels and cell phones. They spend the summer months with their flocks in the high mountains, before driving them down to the lowlands for the winter, in a tradition known as Transhumance.

The region is only accessible for about four months of the year (June to September) over a dirt track that is ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous roads, and it is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

The Tusheti Road with its sheer drops into the valley below

A shear edge on the Tusheti Road

Our adventure to Tusheti starts in Tbilisi (the capital of the Republic of Georgia) with a drive through the wine-rich valley of Kakheti (more later). In the small town of Valiscuri, we meet our driver, David, and transfer our luggage from our guide, Georgi’s car, to a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser. The dangers of driving this road are such that only local Tush drivers can take you there safely.

As we start out, a small sign reads “Omalo, 72 km.” “That’s only about 44 miles,” I say, “Can’t take that long!” Famous last words!

Waterfalls and cascades rush across the Tusheti Road, Georgia

A cascade on the Tusheti Road

Two hours later, after wending our way up the mountain through a multitude of narrow hairpin bends and switchbacks (we stopped counting at 100), with waterfalls cascading down the steep slate cliffs on the left side of the road and the sheer drops of thousands of feet into the valley below on the right, we arrive at the Abano Pass (9,350 feet), built in 1978 by the Soviets. There are still high banks of snow along the road, evidence of the almost 14 feet that falls here over the winter.

It is now raining and hailing heavily; within a matter of minutes the dirt track is transformed into a muddy morass with large potholes waiting to swallow up the unwary driver.

From here the road descends into the valley through more hairpin bends. Only now the rain has turned the road into a running stream. Next to it, the glacial blue river has become  a muddy, roiling torrent, breaking through its banks, tossing giant tree trunks and other debris around like twigs.

From time to time we see other four-Wheel Drive vehicles but generally there are few other cars until suddenly there is a traffic jam – five cars stopped on the road in the pouring rain. The problem? The bulldozer, which is supposed to maintain the road, has tipped into a sinkhole. There is nothing to do but wait until a digger can be summoned to haul it out.

Landslide on the Tusheti road

Bulldozer clearing a landslide, Tusheti

Our driver, David, is on the phone to the digger driver, telling him that the problem is at “Biblioteca.” It seems a bit out of context until our guide explains that every one of the hairpin bends and curves has a name, used as a reference point by the drivers – their own mental map!

Eventually the digger arrives, rescues the bulldozer, and we continue to the end of the valley and up the next mountain. At times David gets out of the car to check the road before driving over it. As the rain continues to pelt down, there is a real risk of landslides. For the same reason, notwithstanding the incredible photo opportunities, he only will stop to let us take photographs if he is sure there are no risks involved.

Mountain road in Tusheti, Georgia

The road to Tusheti

As the back wheels skid in the mud and veer towards the abyss (there are no guard rails anywhere), we send rocks flying over the edge of the cliff. But we have the utmost confidence in David, a quiet, taciturn man of little words, who navigates the hazards with aplomb. He tells us that sometimes he drives this route two or even three times in a day. For him it is all in a day’s work. For us it is a massive adrenaline rush!

Seven hours after leaving Valiscuri, we come to a beautiful alpine meadow filled with yellow buttercups, wild irises and other wildflowers. Above it, through the clearing mist, five watchtowers cluster on a crag – the medieval towers of Omalo, in the heart of the Tusheti Protected Area at 6,600 feet. From here we will start our exploration of Tusheti, one of the least-known areas of Georgia and the world.

Towers of Omalo beneath the Great Caucasus Mountains

Medieval towers of Omalo

IF YOU GO

Eka Tchvritidze at Wild Georgia organized out travels to Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).

For a taste of what it means to drive on this road, see the BBC 2012 series on the World’s Most Dangerous Roads, narrated by Jessica Hynes and Hugh Bonneville (of  Downton Abbey fame http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pp7ps

See http://www.allegriaphotos.com/Recent-Additions/Republic-of-Georgia/ for more images of Georgia.

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler