A Stranger in Tusheti: Hiking the Omalo Loop in Georgia’s Most Remote Mountain Region

Hard to get to and little known, the beautiful Tusheti region gives Georgia’s other mountain areas a run for their money.

Our car backs down, the driver pulling up behind a trailer to give way to the small truck with its flatbed filled with sand and gravel. Inch by inch, the two cars get closer until there is no more space, and our driver has to reverse just a little bit more. I’m on the backseat by the window, squeezed beside two Germans who curiously follow as the truck inches past us. They can’t see what me and the Polish guy on the front seat can see: as we’re giving the truck leeway, one of the back tyres has slid off the road. One more movement backwards and we’re ready to plummet down, and even the slender young birch trees on the side of the road are not going to stop us before we’ll reach the bottom of the valley.

This is the road to Tusheti national park: a dirt road to the mountains just wide enough for one vehicle, accessible for four months a year and only passable by a jeep. Often dubbed one of the world’s most dangerous roads, the track running through Abano pass still takes a few lives every year. On our way up, the driver points to the side of the road where a jeep went over just a month ago, killing all seven people inside. The driver hadn’t been inebriated as I might have assumed, just inexperienced.

About one month away from the end of the hiking season, this should be the prime time to visit, but the five-hour drive from Telavi bars many tourists in a time crunch from visiting, opting either for a weekend trip to Kasbegi or a few days in Mestia. Compared to the two most popular hiking regions in Georgia, Tusheti might pale in comparison: the Caucasus mountains here are lower and this late in the summer, all the snow caps are gone. Colours here seem subdued: dry grass on yellow hills, pine trees whose green accentuates the beige backdrop, pale blue skies and golden sunsets.

But Tusheti has one advantage over its rivals: its solitude.

No bus loads of casual tourists are unloaded here daily. No big, bright supermarkets contest the local shops where small selections of biscuits and tin can food hang next to rows of home-knitted woollen socks and hats. Every village has a guest house, that much is true: but walking between them, you are quick to lose other outdoor enthusiasts and have the hills and valleys of Georgia’s most remote region all to yourself.

 

I spent the first day exploring the area around Omalo, the biggest village in the region and the main headquarters for most tourists to the region. The walk to the nearby village of Diklo is pleasant and well marked, and the ruins of an old mountain castle hiding behind the village offer sweeping views over pine-covered forests below. Just one cloud has followed me on my way: a small, soft wisp, like an afterthought, hangs above a barren mountaintop.

Diklo is the closest settlement to the Russian region of Dagestan. While it would be impossible to accidentally walk into the neighbouring – occasionally hostile – territory, border guards often patrol in the area and meeting a foreign hiker, might ask to see identification. My hike went unbothered and I got to enjoy playing the Queen of the fortress in regal solitude.

From Diklo, it’s possible to hike to Dartlo, possibly the most famous village in the region; but since I’m passing through there tomorrow, I’m tracing my steps back to Omalo. The dusty jeep road dips down to the river before starting the final, gruelling climb back into town; a few local boys in a banged-up white pick-up, sputtering and smelling of dark petrol, stop and enthusiastically wave me to get onboard. On the back of the truck, two other tourists already cower, seemingly unsure whether to find the whole ordeal funny or horrifying as we rattle up the hill.

My main draw to Tusheti has been the three-day Omalo loop: a trek that promises to take me through some of the most important heritage villages in the area, through valleys and over mountain passes.

Structures similar to Svaneti towers protrude in the middle of traditional villages. In the past, these towers known as kohskebl would have been used as defences against the many foreign enemies ravaging their way through Georgia. Now they’re slowly crumbling to the ground for lack of upkeeping.

Luckily, many villages in the area have received funding to restore these important heritage landscapes, and the growing stream of tourists dollars surely helps, too. In the village of Dartlo, restoration of old houses has been started alongside new building projects.

I stop in Dartlo to grab a Coke and what might be the best khatcapuri I’ve had during my whole stay in Georgia. Houses here are built using traditional dry masonry, flat grey stone slabs stacked on top of each other without mortar or plaster. Thin, overlapping stone slates form the roofs. Newer houses are easily recognisable by wood: construction has been so hasty that the new wood has not even been painted yet, its paleness standing out like bone amidst its darker neighbours. The smell of sawdust still hangs in the air.

A dusty jeep road connects the different tiny villages along the bottom of the valley. I follow it upstream by the bright, lively mountain river. Freshly painted red arrows point the way. Only once I think I lose it as it points me away from the track and towards a shack of a house by the road. I get closer warily, stepping over clumps of sheep wool matted with mud and dirt, half expecting either an overprotective sheep dog or an axe-wielding maniac to attack. But the new trail just leads steeply down the bank and to a small bridge to cross the river.

The sun slinks behind mountaintops and the road is cast in shadows. Mountains rise on both sides of me, tall towards the sky glowing yellow in the golden hour. The wind is getting stronger. I can hear it wailing in the hills above me. It sounds like screams – but it might just be the vulture riding a thermal wave above me.

I arrive in the village of Parsma an hour or two before sundown. The next day I’d see the settlement on top of a cliff overlooking my path – but as I hike in, the only structures I see are two café-bars and a guest house perched atop a hill. Someone’s camped in a bright green tent by the riverbank. If I have one regret, it is having left my tent in Finland.

Guesthouse Baso is comfortable, though – and lucky for me, the owner speaks Spanish. For 60 lari (20 e) per night, I have my very own twin room with an ensuite, dinner and breakfast. It always astounds me when travel bloggers praise mountain cuisine. It is very simple, mostly tasty and always filling: but rarely on par with the delicious recipes that restaurants in bigger cities are able to whip up. Tonight I’m dining on fresh cucumbers and tomatoes – the closest thing to fresh fruit that grow in Tusheti -, dolmas, oily chips, cold rice infused with parsley, and, surprisingly – spring rolls.

It is still chilly when I leave the guest house in the morning. Spring floods have not been kind in this area: the only bridge leading over the river is broken and twisted, like crumpled by a tempered giant’s hand. It was supposed to be fixed months ago but there it stands still, as broken as ever.

I’ve mentally prepared myself for the crossing all night so when I step onto the first plank, I’m calm and focused. From previous hikers’ comments I know anyway that as scary as the structure seems, at least it’s steady.

‘I’m a little afraid I’m going to fall into the river’, I confessed to the guest house keeper the night before.

‘If you’re not afraid, you’re not going to fall’, she told me.

I choose my steps carefully, stepping from one piece of wood to the twisted bare metal bones of the bridge and hanging onto the knotted metal wire that used to hold the bridge together but now provides a useful safety rope. The river underneath runs wild. Is it deep? Probably not. I still don’t want to find out. Its movement becomes white noise as I shimmy across. It feels like the water is standing still and the bridge is the one swaying. I try not to look down.

A small crowd of locals has gathered on the opposite bank. One of the men climbs after me and offers help but I thank him and gesture that I’ve got it. The last bit of the bridge has taken the most damage. The metal wire I’ve been hanging onto rises out of reach, just a triangular piece of metal juts out for me to hold onto.

I glance backwards. I’ve already come most of the way but now my legs are shaking. Tentatively, I touch the edge of the metal piece. What if there wasn’t water underneath? I ask myself. Suddenly all the fear is gone, and slowly, slowly, I move across the remaining pieces until my feet hit solid ground.

I lift up my arms in victory and the audience on the other side waves at me. No applause, unfortunately.

Morning chill quickly changes into beating sunshine. I’m sweating profusely as I climb up the steep, narrow path leading up to the Naklo pass. Soon my hands are stained red and purple from the wild raspberries and blueberries I stop to pick on the way.

I take a quick break to take in the view on top before starting a steep descend back on the other side. The mountains around look like paintings, yellow hills rising against the baby blue sky devoid of stark shadows. On my way down, I take my shoes off to cross small streams, and I relish the feel of the forest floor under my feet.

The second day of the loop is without a doubt the most beautiful. If I had known better, I would’ve hiked back up to Naklo pass on the third and final morning and followed the path on the ridge back to Omalo to enjoy the gorgeous nature for a little while longer.

Unoftunately, I’m stuck on the jeep road again. The owner of my guest house in Jvarboseli takes me over the river in the morning – here the bridge has been wiped out clear – and leaves me to walk the 23 kilometres back to Omalo.

I’d heard a lot about the viciously possessive Caucasian shepherd dogs but I had successfully avoided them – well, until today.

My daydreaming is interrupted by the sight of a dog with a shaggy orange coat. He’s seen me too, rising slowly to his feet by a makeshift shack. ‘Hey!!’ I yell in hopes that the shepherd might be around, ‘can you hold your dog?’ But it’s too late. The dog runs towards me barking hoarsely, as if he had a sore throat from defending the little shack in the woods a little too often. He chases me back a good way before the shepherd catches up and gets him to leave me alone.

He shows me to crouch down if I encounter any more dogs. We don’t share a language, but as I understand, he assures me that they won’t attack if they don’t think I’m a threat.

His advice soon comes in handy. About an hour later I’ve got a village in my sights when I round a corner and come face to face with a big white dog. He growls and lurches at me, and I go down on my knees, holding the hiking stick in front of my face like a low-cost parody of Sword in Stone. I avoid eye contact; I’ve read it drives them wild. I can still feel him behind me, though. His powerful barks seem to shake the very ground beneath me and penetrate my skin.

A drop of sweat travels down the side of my nose until it reaches the tip. I stare at the dusty ground as the dog circles me now; a little movement and he jumps closer, erupting in a new series of barks. I watch the drop hit the sand, soon followed by another. My face itches but I don’t dare to wipe the moisture away. What if the dog decides to attack? What I he won’t leave?

But eventually he does. I rise to my feet and continue my journey thoroughly shaken. At the next bend, I meet the shepherd, and I think he can tell I’ve been crying. (Oh, did I say the drops were sweat? No, I was definitely crafting the headlines in my head already: FINNISH GIRL DIES OF FRIGHT BY A LOUD DOG.) He immediately orders his three other dogs away, grabs his coat and stick and walks with me until we’ve reached town.

On the way, he points at three different flocks of sheep grazing on the hills. I ask him how many, and he draws the figure 1,000 in the sand.

The familiar shape of the defensive towers in still far-away Omalo greet me as I collapse on a stone to calm my nerves. A sign in front of me informs that I am in Bochorna, the highest settlement in Europe at 2,345 m.

Suddenly three jeeps cruise up the hill. They halt behind me, and out jump twenty men and women, all dressed in blue and white linen shirts embroidered with delicate stitches. Two people in the group forgot to bring their shirts, a man with a gleam in his eye tells me with a grin. They’ve made up for the lack of national attire by wearing the yellow-and-blue flag.

‘It’s the national day in Ukraine! You must drink with us!’

Somewhere a cardboard cup appears before me. The joyous group pours it full with dark, almost black wine from an unmarked plastic bottle. After all, Tusheti is still part of the Kakheti region, known as the world’s oldest wine region – and this is exactly how good Georgian wine should be: strong, black and homemade.

As fast as they have appeared, as soon as they are gone, and I’m left standing on the road with a cup of wine in my hand.

It would be a good question to ask what a group of Ukranians celebrating their national day – or what a lone Finnish girl, for that matter – is doing in the most remote part of Georgia. It would be easy to dismiss Tusheti as just a detour, a challenge that most travellers to this country would pass by for a lack of time or simply for not knowing it exists.

As I stand here, the hills below me unravel in layers of dark and hazy greens, the invincible fort standing proudly above it all like a lighthouse pointing a weary traveller at home. I wonder if the invaders of the past had once stood in these steps and marvelled at this very same view. I wonder if they stopped for a second to appreciate the sheer beauty of it all.

I’d like to believe they did.

TUSHETI NATIONAL PARK 101

Tusheti national park is located in Northeastern Georgia.

The region is accessible only from May to mid-October; the peak times to visit are July and August.

There are no ATMs in Omalo or any of the other villages.

Guest houses also only take cash, and they only accept Georgian lari.

The main activities are hiking and horseback riding.

GETTING TO TUSHETI

There is only one road to Omalo, the main town, and it’s only serviced by private jeeps.

A full jeep accommodates six people and costs 250 lari, so a one-way ride for one person should cost 50-60 lari (17-20 e). However, the price depends on how many people there are in the jeep.

Where to find the jeeps then? Well, first you gotta get to the city of Telavi.

If you already have a group, you can arrange a jeep at the tourist information centre in Telavi. If not, it’s best to go to the village of Kvemo Alvani about 20 kilometres further. Catch a minibus at the old bus station at 8.45 a.m. (the ride should cost 2 lari), in Kvemo Alvani it drops you off at the crossroads where jeep owners wait for their cars to fill up.

The trip from Alvani to Omalo takes about four hours with usually one rest stop halfway through.

Telavi is located east from Tbilisi and is easy to get to with daily marshrutka minibuses. Get to Telavi the night before so you can start towards Omalo early enough!

Hitchhiking to Omalo is not impossible but very, very hard, since most of the traffic going that way is paid jeeps. The road is also very difficult; the safest option is to go with a jeep since they usually have experience driving the road.

WHERE TO STAY

The main town, Omalo, where jeeps drop you off, is divided into two parts. Upper Omalo is right under the old defensive towers and slightly more touristic than lower Omalo where I stayed. The two are only separated by one hill, though, and it takes about twenty minutes to walk between the two.

Most of the other towns also have guest houses by now but taking taxis in Tusheti is VERY expensive – so if you’d prefer to spend your time away from Omalo, it’s best to stay there for the first night and hike to your next destination in the morning.

 

Have you been to Tusheti? Or even heard of it?

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