Imagine going up through the clouds to be above them at 3.000 meters over the sea level. Now close your eyes and take a breath of fresh air before gazing at the most stunning sunset you have ever seen. When you feel ready to continue, get in the car and follow the river to a large forest glade, the entry to this pristine historical region. You can only experience this on your way to the isolated and mysterious Tusheti.
We were hitchhiking on the road with no plans nor expectations but the will and the desire of travelling into the unknown was there, waiting for the destiny to make its move. Our path crossed with Achiko’s, a 28-year-old good-looking Georgian lad who stopped in front of us and guess what, he was going to his family house up there!
It’s impressive how the landscape can drastically change in just 85 kms. stretch of road: from the vineyards in Kakheti valley rising up the meandering path across waterfalls and under interwoven branches arcs, to the flowering slopes in the other side of the Abano Pass: the most dangerous high mountain pass in Georgia and one of the highest in Europe, only reachable by 4x4 car or by foot, the traditional way.
In the back seat of his Suzuki, my 20-year-old friend Max from Ukraine, the 28-year-old Belgium solo traveler Noémie whom we met while hitchhiking that morning and me. In the passenger’s seat was Gela, the 31-year-old Achiko’s half-brother and he was in charge of playing traditional Georgian music, lighting the cigarettes and providing beer to our cheerful driver.
We crossed with several shepherds leading their cows, horses and flocks of sheeps to their winter houses in Zemo and Kvemo Alvani and other towns in Kakheti. It was the 1st. of October, perfect time for the transhumance because the road is closed from the middle of the month and it’s accessible again on late May, when there’s no more snowfalls and rains.
At some point we had the feeling of being in a roller coaster, not only because we were screaming and hitting each other due to the bumps, we were also going up so fast and the abrupt turns looked even more dangerous. We were trying to fasten our safe belts while yelling “slow down!” in every language we knew besides Georgian, the only one they spoke.
The brothers were laughing at us and we got it, it was pointless to buckle up because if we fell down it would be over anyways, considering we had left behind the tree line one hour ago. Later we realized that he knew that road like the back of his hand.
Achiko stopped the car suddenly and before going down, he grabbed some thin beeswax candles and lighted them. They showed us that we had to make the sign of the cross before placing them under one of the many tombstones all along the route as a way to pay tribute to the memory of the people who died trying to reach the bucolic villages of Tusheti.
On the highest point of the pass we found a shepherd and we drank Georgian vine vodka known as “chacha” in a kantsi, a traditional drinking horn of ram or goat. We toasted to our lives, “to be alive” meanwhile we stared at the sun disappearing in the vast ocean of clouds.
We were not able to see further than the distance reached by the high beams on our way down but we arrived safe to Kakhabo, the hamlet where their family comes from. To everybody’s surprise, their friend Soso and his son Giorgi were waiting for us with freshly baked kotori, a cheese-filled bread traditional from Tusheti and of course with liters and liters of homemade chacha and wine!
The next day, I woke up the first just before the sunrise and I left the house silent. I was amazed when I found out that it was built on the craggy peak of the mountain! From there you can also see Omalo, the largest village of the region, and the medieval towers of Keselo, the shelter of the local people during the war time.
It took me three minutes to reach the top from where you have a 360o unbelievable view of the colorful surrounding nature. I felt the caress of the tenuous rays of sunlight on my skin and the fresh scent of pine mixed with an unexpected orange blossom smell impregnate the air. I could hear nothing but the whisper of the breeze coming from the valleys, going up by the hillsides and passing through the birch woods. What a pleasant feeling and such a peaceful moment!
Throughout Georgia they have the beautiful belief of the guests as a gift from God and Tusheti region is not the exception. We were received with open arms in two of the brother’s friend’s houses and they greeted us with breakfast and lunch. To kick-start our day we had chacha, wine, a delicious chicken soup, the cottage cheese fondue khavitsi and salad made with vegetables recently picked from their garden.
“We’ve been always seeking to have a peaceful life in these mountains, our home”, explained Soso in Russian to Noémie, and she kindly translated to us. He also told us that for centuries Tusheti has been the place where people from all around the Caucasus have come seeking refuge, running away from all kind of invaders: Muslims, Christians, Mongols, Russians or Persians. An amazing example of Georgian hospitality and coexistence.
Afterwards we visited Omalo and they explained to us that the Tush or Tushetians have been living in communities in these mountains for centuries. They have been trying to be in harmony with nature, a traditional precept of the animistic ‘pagan’ religion professed by their ancestors. Below this village you can find the beginning of the roads that run through Gomtsari and Pirikiti valleys, wonderful hiking trails to discover the most innermost landscapes of Tusheti!
Wandering under the sky full of stars and staring vacantly at the purple shape of the mountains far away on the horizon I wondered out loud: why it feels like the time stopped since we arrived here? After a long silence, Max replied: maybe because is where all the old gods' souls came looking for shelter...
I nodded yes. Tusheti is the most breathtaking place I’ve found in my 9 months travelling all along Georgia. So, what are you waiting for to dive into one of the most authentic and enchanting regions in the Caucasus?!