My first venture into the Caucasus mountains was to Tusheti, a region in northeast Georgia. Through one of the many “Expats in Georgia” Facebook groups I belong to, I found out there were spots remaining on a $175 weekend tour. The only route to Tusheti is Abano Pass: a 45-mile (72 km) one-way dirt road that switchbacks up to 9,271 feet (2,826 m) at its highest point. I signed up, making sure to avoid the drone footage of the road available on YouTube prior to my departure. On Thursday, I packed my base layers, rain jacket, and hiking boots and took the train from Zugdidi to Tbilisi (about a 5 1/2 hour ride and a $5.50 ticket, each way). I spent the night at Moosica Hostel, which I definitely recommend. (It was $10 for a shared dorm each night.)
Early Friday morning at 6 am, I met our trip leader Gurleen, driver Bacho, and the five other travelers. We’d spend most of the weekend in Bacho’s trusty 4WD Delica. Rain was forecasted for the weekend which made me a little nervous about road conditions but I was mostly excited to get away from the heat and humidity in Zugdidi.
Abano Pass is open only from early June to late September, so this was the last chance to visit this season. It’s the only road that connects Tusheti to the rest of Georgia, so those living in the highlands during the summer shutter their homes in the fall, pack up and return to their winter homes in the lowlands. Tusheti is home to ethnic Georgian populations, the primary community being Tushs or Tushetians. There is an ethnographic museum at the visitor’s center in Kvemo Omalo that explains Tush traditions, cuisine, mythology, and history. On the road, we passed many shepherds guiding sheep and cattle down the mountain. Halfway through our journey to Omalo, we stopped for a picnic on the side of the road with other groups of Georgian tourists. The passengers shared chacha and brandy as well as bread, nuts, and cookies.
We finally reached our guesthouse in Omalo in the late afternoon and had time to collect ourselves before heading out again to Bochorna, the highest permanently-occupied settlement in Europe at 7,694 feet (2,345 m) in the Gometsari Gorge. It looked fairly abandoned to us, but according to the census, there’s one man who remains there year-round. There was another village we could see by peering down from the side of the road.
It rained strongly for the first half hour of our exploring, but it paid off with a break in the clouds. The sunshine made the tall grass glow and revealed the most vivid double rainbow I have ever seen. It began just up the hill from where the Delica was parked and arched over the road and into the ravine below, a Georgian flag blowing picturesquely underneath.
We then returned to the guesthouse, Hotel Tsane, for dinner. The guesthouse was three levels and the main floor was the dining room. Our meals at guesthouses were made up of vegetables from gardens, freshly-baked bread, and homemade wine. That night we had cantaloupe and watermelon, cucumber and tomato salad, stuffed eggplant, a pepper salad, and of course, khinkali.
There was a new moon that night, so we waited until 11 pm for the clouds to dissipate to look at the stars from the balcony. You could see the Milky Way for about a half hour before more clouds rolled in. With the help of Raeleen, I tried my hand at night sky photography for the first time. There was no heat at the guesthouse but I stayed cozy under thick blankets and in my wool socks.
On Saturday, we awoke to a delicious breakfast of pancakes with jam, eggs, and roasted potatoes. We all piled into the Delica, putting our trust in Bacho for another day of driving on the nerve-wracking mountain roads. We ventured about 12 miles (19 km) through the Pirikiti valley along the thundering Pirikitis Alazani River to Girevi, a village close to the Chechen border. We wandered through the ruins of watchtowers and saw soaring mountains in every direction we turned.
After our hike in Girevi, we turned around to visit the village Parsma. I clambered up another hillside, heeding the warning that women weren’t allowed near the village church. There were more watchtower ruins and an inhabited village behind the ruins. After looking around, Matt and I spotted a big, sleeping shepherd dog we didn’t want to surprise and meandered back down to the road. There, we found the rest of our crew seated at an outdoor table, drinking tea with three local men. Our driver, Bacho, was in the kitchen making khinkali for them.
The men were excited to offer us homemade beer, declaring that they planned to depart for the season the day before but had to wait another day because the rain made driving hazardous. “We packed up all our things but couldn’t leave, so today we woke up and the only thing to do was drink!” one of the men explained to us in Russian as he knocked over a green plastic bottle of beer. Remembering that a Polish trekker at our guesthouse had his plan delayed by three days after accepting an offer of homemade beer, we politely declined our gracious hosts and emphasized how much we enjoyed the tea.
We rambled down the road again to Dartlo for lunch at Guesthouse Shuni. The original plan was for our group to stay here in Dartlo, but it ended up being too cold in the village over the weekend so we stayed in Omalo instead. We were served possibly the best meal of the whole trip, surrounded by a garden of colorful flowers and knitted socks for sale. Our host and Bacho treated us by singing folk songs while we sat on the covered porch to stay out of the rain. After many cups of tea, we decided to venture into the village to look around.
It was then time to return to our guesthouse in Omalo. Much to our alarm, the three men from Parsma passed us on the road. Our dinner that evening was certainly memorable! There was a large Polish tour group seated for dinner, making grandiose toasts as we began our meal. Sure enough, the wine, made and brought by one of the Georgian drivers, started to flow in our group’s direction as we got to know one another. To our group’s embarrassment, no one in the Polish group admitted to being fearful of the treacherous drive. We dined on mtsvadi (skewers of barbecued meat, or shashlik) and mutton stew, trying to forget the discarded entrails we stepped over to enter through the guesthouse gate that evening.
The night really started after a few glasses of wine and being dragged into a group macarena dance and before we knew it, the dining area practically turned into a nightclub. While trying to clear tables, the hosts were dodging patrons jumping in unison to synth beats. Once it got hot enough to strip to our baselayers, we decided to excuse ourselves for the night, defying the pleas of our new friends to stay and drink.
Having avoided any hangovers, our group had breakfast and departed the guesthouse at about 10 am. We spent that morning visiting Keselo. The fortress was built in the 1230s during the Mongol invasion; families would abandon their homes and seek shelter in the towers of the fortress when their villages were raided.
After Keselo, we drove back towards Abano Pass, stopping at the Tusheti Protected Area’s visitor center and museum. The Tusheti Protected Area, totaling 280,860 acres (113,660 ha) is made up of Tusheti National Park, Tusheti Protected Landscape, and the Tusheti Strict Nature Preserve. It was declared a protected area by the Georgian parliament in 2003.
We stalled for a while at the museum, but eventually, it was time to make the terrifying descent. Our trip leader assured us that Bacho had driven the road since 2016, having made the trip 16 times in the 2022 season alone and that we were in good hands. Then the fog rolled in at the highest point of the pass and we couldn’t see more than a few meters in front of us. Clutching to one another nervously, we couldn’t decide if it was better or worse that we couldn’t see the sharp drop-offs. Once we passed through the fog, Bacho pulled over and reclined in his seat, clearly a little stressed. After a short break, we continued down the pass and made it safely to the paved road. We weren’t relieved until we got out of the vehicle for good in Tbilisi–we were double passed on the highway and unfortunately, drove by a bad-looking wreck. (Driving in Georgia leaves much to be desired – I’m happy taking the train!)
Bacho actually didn’t speak fluent English, but communicated with us by repeating words in Georgian until we figured out their meaning through charades (his favorite: modi, modi modi! Come here! when there was something particularly interesting to see or if you had an empty wine glass). His fun, engaging personality was a highlight of the trip. You could rent a private driver (only with a 4×4 vehicle) during the summer months and trek from village to village and make your own guesthouse arrangements, but having just arrived in Georgia it was great peace of mind to have an organized tour group and a reputable, safe driver. It was also so wonderful to meet Raeleen, Matt, Madeline, Orin, and Daria. Our group had a lot of fun together and I would absolutely recommend any tours with Gurleen and the Georgia Expat Traveling Crew.
In fact, this weekend I’m headed to Tbilisi again to meet the other Fulbrighters, celebrate Tbilisoba, and take part in a wine-harvesting day trip with the same tour program. Until then!
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