Tusheti: Georgia's Mountain Kingdom
Updated: Feb 15, 2020
“Wherever we had been in Russia, in Moscow, in the Ukraine, in Stalingrad, the magical name of Georgia came up constantly. People who had never been there, and who possibly never could go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and a great admiration. They spoke of Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven. Indeed, we began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will go not to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die.”
-John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal
Guarded by vertiginous mountains and wedged up against the war-torn Russian region of Chechnya, Tusheti is the most isolated part of the country of Georgia. In addition to keeping large numbers of visitors at bay, the imposing mountain peaks also seem to block the march of time and industrialization. Travelling to Tusheti is like travelling back in time, with the centuries slipping off you as you leave the lowlands behind.
With no airport and only a single road leading to it, Tusheti has only the most tenuous of links with the rest of the world. When snow begins to coat the mountains in October, the road is closed until the slow melt of spring in May or June. The road’s closure effectively seals off the scattered villages of Tusheti for the majority of the year, with only a few hardy and determined villagers opting to brave the deadly cold and isolation all winter. Even during the short summer months, the road to Tusheti is often impassable. Frequently designated one of the world’s most dangerous roads, and certainly the most hazardous in Europe, the road to Tusheti is unpaved, barely wide enough for a single car and frequently washed out by cascading water or mudslides.
The views are staggering, with snow-capped emerald mountains and velvety hills and meadows, the road a thin scar across their face. The majesty of these mountains is punctured by frequent roadside memorials, as car accidents are common and, given the sheer drops and total lack of guardrails, typically fatal; even a few days prior to our own drive, an SUV slid off the muddy road and plunged hundreds of meters down the slope. A 4x4 is essential and it would be fairly reckless to drive this road yourself; thus one of the major sources of income in Tusheti is transporting visitors to and from their mountain kingdom.
The road’s zenith is the Abano Pass, at nearly 3000 meters high. From here, the road coils downward, past snowfields and rusty remnants of towers that briefly brought electricity to Tusheti during Soviet times (after communism fell, the money evaporated and Tusheti currently has no electricity). The first signs of human settlement on the whole journey begin to appear at the valley bottom, simple wooden homes sitting astride rushing rivers.
After yet more dizzying climbs and splashing through streams, the six hour journey winds down in Omalo (pop.34) , the closest thing to a town in Tusheti and the de facto capital of the region. The Tush people are culturally distinct from other Georgians, and are themselves sub-divided between the Chaghma-Tush and the Bat people. The Tush and Bat language are different from the Georgian language, and many villagers speak Tush at home, Georgian when dealing with the government and Russian with foreign visitors. In a hyper-religious country like Georgia, where every town seems to boast two or three ancient churches, Tusheti’s faith distinguishes them from their lowland brethren. Few churches are found here. The only church in the town of Dartlo, built by Russians two hundred years ago on top of a sacred Tush site, still lies in ruins after locals furiously destroyed it.
Though Orthodox Christians like the rest of Georgia, Tush faith incorporates many pre-Christian beliefs. For instance, there is a region-wide prohibition on pork (although Tush people happily eat it when they are in the lowlands during the winter) and stone shrines pepper the countryside, often crowned with the skulls of sacrificed animals. In this deeply traditional and patriarchal society, women, whether foreign or local, are prohibited from coming near these shrines.
One of the other hallmarks of Tusheti are its stone towers. These silent sentinels stand guard over numerous villages and mountain passes, some as a crumbling pile of stones and others restored and rebuilt proudly. Until being tamed by Soviet rule, Tusheti was an incredibly violent place to live, with villages raiding and plundering each other when they weren’t being invaded by foreign conquerors like Genghis Khan or Tamerlane (who we wrote about here) who were keen to use the mountain passes as routes into the fertile farmland of Georgia. Tamerlane actually invaded Georgia on six separate occasions, leaving starvation and ruins in his wake each time.
This drone footage is courtesy of @levanitavberidze (instagram) who is from Tusheti. The guesthouse we slept in is the stone building at the top of the town.
As a result of these threats, families would construct multi-story towers out of slate that could be used as shelters and small citadels. These towers would often mean the difference between life and death for a family and so were normally built at the highest point possible. Towers were handed down from generation to generation and even today most local people still have a tower that belongs to their clan. Few towers are without a legend of heroic last stands or tragic sieges. For example, when the Russian empire began to push south into Georgia in the 19th Century, it supposedly took 3,000 Russian soldiers three days to defeat a single tower: it was defended by only two locals, who surrendered only after the Russians detonated a bomb in a tunnel underneath the tower. The fierce reputation of Tush warriors, who even in the last century wore metal chainmail as armour, deterred foreign expansion into Tusheti in the same way as the horrible road does today, allowing Tusheti to maintain its tribal democracy, its culture and its strident independence.
It’s no surprise that hiking is one of the main draws for visitors to Tusheti. Our own ambitious hiking plans were curtailed by the recent destruction of a key wooden bridge by a rising river, so we set out with slightly more modest aims. Climbing grassy ridges, gigantic golden eagles drifted in circles below us and we kept an eye out for sheep dogs. Sheep-herding has traditionally been the major industry here in Tusheti, with shepherds letting their flock graze in the summer and then driving them down to the lowlands to warmer pastures when the snow begins to fall, in a great migration of livestock and drunken shepherds. You’re never far from a flock of sheep in Tusheti, flecks of white speckling the green mountain sides. This may sound very pastoral and idyllic but seeing a flock up close soon drove fear into our hearts. Every shepherd has at least a few Caucasian Shepherd Dogs (no prizes if you guess how that breed got its name) and they are a constant threat to hikers.
Bred and trained from birth to safeguard the flock from wolves and sheep-rustlers, these sheepdogs are extremely territorial and aggressive. If you have the misfortune to tread at all close to the flock, I can guarantee your hike will be interrupted by urgent barking, followed moments later by a snarling sheepdog bounding down the hill at you. If the shepherd isn’t around to call his beast away, be prepared to fight back. Most photos of me in Tusheti feature my own dog-defense stick, which I fortunately only needed to wield once.
We rested from our hike at a lush knoll that was once a meeting place for twelve local elders. These respected village leaders would convene to debate local issues and decide on punishments. Looking out at the rugged landscape below us, it was easy to see how this challenging topography cultivated and preserved local cultures. Next to Papua New Guinea, the Caucasus region is the most linguistically diverse place on earth; the traditional languages of some villages were entirely incomprehensible to the next village over the mountain.
A village called Mirghvela (composed, as far as we could tell, of a single home and guesthouse) was our homebase for the majority of the time we travelled in Tusheti. We also stayed in the picturesque hamlet of Dartlo, which was located in a valley bottom and under the shadow of numerous defence towers. Georgian hospitality is famous and the Tush people are no exception. Homestays are basically the only accommodation in Tusheti and our hosts in Dartlo were insistent on us sitting down to massive feasts prepared by the lady of the house. A late midday lunch, where barely an inch of the wood table was left uncovered by some sort of food, stretched into dinner, with yet more platters of food, which in turn evolved into a late night drinking session.
The amount of alcohol consumed in this area is honestly alarming. Few male tourists escape at least a few shots of homebrewed “chacha”, which at its best tastes like chilled diesel, and giant plastic barrels of homemade yellow wine are ubiquitous in every kitchen. Georgia has a rich and historical tradition governing toasting; who makes the toasts, in what order and to whom. Toasting can carry on for hours and it’s imperative for guests to down the whole glass after a toast. It is also imperative for the hosts to refill a guest’s glass the moment it is empty, a circular chain that leads to predictable results.
Every time a jug of alcohol was finished, there would be a moment of quiet disappointment on the part of the drinkers (and quiet relief on the part of me) until our host wrenched another jug out from under some table or out of some box, followed by jubilant cheers. Our host’s relatives, shepherds who live in the tower-capped hills above Dartlo, soon came by and joined the celebration, which meant a whole new round of toasts were required. In a patchy blend of rudimentary Russian, English and Georgian, we raised and down our glasses to (among other things) mothers, fathers, children, mountains, the country of Georgia, the country of Canada, sheep, wine, Tusheti, food, and love.