Untamed Tusheti: Georgia’s Remote and Thrilling Mountain Region
Certain travelers develop a craving for wildness. Not necessarily the kind of wildness where you don’t see another person for days, or where you’re required to lug specialized equipment up glaciers and dangle from ropes.
The wildness that certain travelers crave has to do with the thrill of encountering people who still live the ways of the past, who do things the way their grandparents did, simply because there is no other way available.
Such a place is Tusheti. This mountain region of Georgia is not truly wild, but it’s definitely not tame.
The Tush people who live here have always had to concern themselves with fundamentals: food, water, warmth, caring for sheep and cattle, growing potatoes, making cheese.
In return for this backbreaking labor, they are rewarded with some of the most breathtaking surroundings on earth.
Sheep graze the hillsides while the gentler slopes have been dug up and planted. Stones and slate have been gathered and stacked into towers and homes issuing thin streams of wood smoke. Visitors are greeted with a natural, 311-degree panorama of unbroken grassy inclines, magnificent sunken valleys and distant wooded heights.
Getting There: Timing it Just Right
Travel to and from Tusheti is only possible across the 9,350-foot Abano Pass – a narrow zig-zag road that’s only passable from late May, after most of the snow melts, to mid-October, when it returns.
The switchbacks of the curvaceous dirt track necessitate navigating between steep embankments and even steeper drop-offs. Literally a rock and a hard place.
Travelers are advised to only trust local, professional drivers in 4WD vehicles. These experienced mountain drivers deliver you back in time to a simpler era, where the only electricity might be a few (admittedly newfangled) solar panels used to power the (also new) TV. There is no running water in Tusheti, unless it’s gravity-fed.
Reward at the Top
With the rugged pass behind you, you have entered a place that is beyond “authentic.” Cottages of stacked slates dot the slopes and cluster on the high ground, some of them with carved fretted balconies added later. The older dwellings have space for livestock on the ground floor.
And all around are the swelling green hills, the deep ravines, and the sharp peaks and promontories of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. You can hear the sheep calling in the distance, or perhaps close at hand.
Tusheti Sheep (and Tusheti Sheep Cheese)
Tusheti sheep are a special breed raised here for meat, milk and wool, and are a staple of daily life in Tusheti, providing sustenance and employment for villagers.
They are always pastured, never living under cover or eating cut hay, and that makes their wool denser, and their milk richer. With a fat content of 7%, Tusheti sheep milk is used to make the distinctive Tusheti Gouda cheese, traditionally packed in a sheepskin. Another traditional cheese is called dambal khacho; it’s like smoked cottage cheese.
It’s beyond farm-to-table, it’s free-range, grass-fed, mountain-to-table sheep cheese. Pair it with the home-brewed beer that Tushetian men make for feasts, and fresh bread baked in a tone, like a clay tandoor oven.
As in the rest of Georgia, hospitality is prized above all, and local people are happy to celebrate with travelers. Tusheti summer festivals include lots of feasting, beer drinking, singing, dancing, and games.
The men gather in a beer hut to brew the special beer, and generally enjoy themselves. To be fair, they are also tasked with some of the festival food preparation.
The village women gather to make khinkali, the savory meat dumplings that the Tush make best (or so they say – you must judge for yourself.) And the feast is on.
Closed for Winter
As we mentioned, the best, and truthfully the only, time to venture to Tusheti is between May and October. As winter threatens, most villagers head down to low ground to ride it out where the road isn’t closed for six months of the year. Where the water in their homes won’t freeze up, and fresh vegetables can be found at the market.
The shepherds and their flocks walk for three days to get down to Zemo (upper) and Kvemo (lower) Alvani villages at the foot of the mountains in the Kakheti region. This land has belonged to the Tush since the 17th century, given to them as a reward for their help fighting the Persians. Here they tend their sheep and work odd jobs to while away the winter.
A Link with the Past: Living Traditions
Tusheti is a place where Christianity and paganism meet and coexist, and where summer mountain life and winter valley life are both valued. The steep ravines of Tusheti have served as shelter for small villages that in the past were isolated even from each other.
Today, though most Tush spend their winters in the lowlands, these mountain people have kept their traditions alive, and their culture intact. This is why they and their mountain home deserve UNESCO status, and this is why you might need to visit with them soon, before too much modernity reaches up into one of the world’s last untamed places.
Travel to Tusheti with MIR
MIR has 30 years of unmatched destination expertise and travel planning experience, hand-crafting tours to Georgia since 1986.
You can visit the remote, mountainous Tusheti region on MIRs new small group tour for 2018, Village Traditions of the South Caucasus.
Alternately, you can sample the food, wine, song, culture, and scenery of Georgia on MIR’s A Taste of Georgia: Wine, Cuisine & Culture.
You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on one of MIR’s private independent trips or on a private journey of Georgia, customized to your desired dates and style.
Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-111-111-1111 to start planning your 2018 travels now.
Top photo: A cow and her stacked slate barn in Tusheti, Georgia. Photo: Shota Lagazidze
PUBLISHED: October 17, 2017