Three whole days with almost no sleep. The first day, at three in the morning, a flight to from Tbilisi to Warsaw. The second day, up at 3am again, for our flight to from Warsaw to Kiev is at 6am and another flight back to Tbilisi. The following night was short too – we once again woke at 3am and set off as a group for Tusheti. Sleepless rushing about can be wearing, but once we have reached our destination, we know that the horrendously sleepless nights have finally delivered us to paradise.
Our team is well matched – a boy’s own trip, you might say, seeing as it is also partly my bachelor party, because I am about to get married – so this is the ideal moment to consider the meaning of life or else give it all up and rest in the company of some good mates, in the best possible location – the lush natural landscapes of Tusheti.
Paradise beyond civilisation
Tusheti is a relatively small region (896km sq.) located in the majestic mountain range of the high Caucasus, squeezed in between between Georgia, Dagestan and Chechnya. It is the destination of choice for those looking for places which have not yet been spoilt by commercial tourism and our overall global mess. In Tusheti, life rolls on by slowly, just as it has always done, in accordance with the seasons and times of day.
No one kills time here sitting and checking Facebook. Locals are not keen on such things, nor do they have the time to waste on them, for access to electricity and the internet is limited – everything runs on solar power. In the daytime, men shepherd sheep and livestock, while women busy themselves with household duties. A lot of the wool which is plentiful here means in free moments they occupy themselves pressing felt, weaving tapestries, knitting warm sweaters. Come the evenings, it is time for traditional feasts, called the supra, accompanied by shepherds playing their salamuri instruments, their wives accompanying them on their panduri.
Tusheti is fascinating from environmental and ethnographic perspectives. It is a place where people feel remarkably free, while also feeling tiny when faced with the timeless, epic mountains towering over them. It is a place where one can really find oneself – on the edge of the world, or else completely differently – at the very source of Georgia’s Arcadia.
Trails (not) for risktakers
But any trip to magical Tusheti is no walk in the proverbial park. Of all the parts of Georgia which are harder to reach, the north-east parts of it are always a real logistical challenge for me. At first, we drove in four-wheel-drive cars across the Gombori mountain massif, setting off at eight a.m., in order to reach Kakheti three hours later.
In the town of Kvemo Alvani, Sasha (my colleague and tour guide) and I leave our two jeeps behind and switch to off-road cars belonging to local drivers. You can never be too careful here, for the road to Omalo – classified as the seventh most dangerous road in the world – is treacherous and dangerous and… a real killer.
In Tusheti, my Georgian style passions are always countered by my more Polish sense of responsibility. Even though this is not the first time I have come here, I have never chanced driving solo across the local trails, along countless winding bends, wrapped round steep cliffs. I also advise all other visitors to the region to use local drivers – first of all, this way we support local families financially, and secondly and more importantly: we do not risk our own lives on a trip which is supposed to be a lively, not a deadly adventure. Hiring a single car (such as a Mitsubishi Delica) with driver for the route connecting Kvemo Alvani – Omalo – Dartlo – Kvemo Alvani, costs 800 GEL.
A round of moonshine for the dead
It takes four hours to reach Omalo, even though it is a distance of only 75 km! Our efforts are rewarded with spectacular views of the Caucasian peaks, seen from a winding highland road which keeps the blood pumping through our veins at breakneck speed. The route, referred to as the Omalo Road, leads through the mountains, down through the picturesque valleys of the Pirikiti and Gometsris rivers, then on through the Abano pass – the highest point of the journey at 2826m ASL.
We move slowly, with surgical precision, holding our breath whenever forced to pass an oncoming vehicle. Meanwhile, we constantly pass by the remains of broken down cars or crosses erected to commemorate those who never made it round a given bend – not just those new to these roads, but all too often wizened and experienced locals, for Omalo Road is not short of accidents, often involving deadly casualties.
The car wrecks are often surrounded with empty chacha bottles, as well as glasses and bits of food left behind. Some of the drivers will stop to have a shot of this Georgian moonshine in order to honour the dead. Though if they honour them a little too keenly, they are more than likely to then join that roll of honour… The wild nature of Tusheti knows no mercy, and I feel pleased not to be the one sitting behind the wheel, forced to navigate its winding lanes.
Indomitably wild Greater Caucasus
We climb a road cut through rock towards Abano Pass, along winding serpentines and across wooden bridges, raging highland waters far below. Here and there, in green ravines, the wheels of our cars slide across slippery rocks, soaked by wild waterfalls and streams.
The sun, rising high above slopes covered in thick pine woodland, is crowned with clouds. The beams of sunlight are not much good to us, for even now – on the 1st of August, it really is cold up here. And yet the drive gets our adrenaline going and stops us thinking about temperatures.
All around us, impenetrable, lush vegetation all across mountains climbing for the skies. And silence, not counting the gravel crunching beneath our car’s tyres, and space – apart from the odd herd of grazing sheep, which are the mainstay of local economies (sheep’s milk is used to produce one of the most expensive kinds of cheese in Georgia – gudis kveli, also known as guda; which is matured in sheepskins, and thus has a unique aroma and a potent, salty, spicy flavour). Soon enough, the road turns into a highland track, no more trees growing around it. We are now almost at 3000m ASL, and a little while later begin our descent towards Omalo.
Dreams of the righteous by a rock fortress
Buildings begin to appear on a mountainous horizon – we reach the main settlement in the region, located at a height of 1880m ASL and split into two parts. Old Omalo (Upper, Zemo) is mainly made up of fortified stone towers dating back to the 10th and 12th centuries AD, including the three storey Keselo fortress built in 1230, designed to stop invading Mongol and Dagestani warriors (it now serves as an ethnographic museum). In New Omalo (Lower, Kvemo) we find hostels and homes for locals.
We then set off down a sandy, grassy road, lined with both dilapidated buildings and more affluent farmhouses. You can spend the night in every settlement in Tusheti, of which there are not many, as well as setting up tents on camping grounds. We lodge at a hostel – if you were to come here, I recommend Shina guesthouse in Upper Omalo and Tevdore guesthouse in Lower Omalo. Humble, wooden buildings, surrounded with ever-present thyme bushes, provide us with all we need after the exciting drive.
During a delicious and truly gigantic dinner, we agree to rest for an hour, and then set off for a hike from Lower Omalo towards Upper Omalo. Alas, even before we rise from the dining table, we are already falling asleep. I am starting to feel that I am no longer 20 years old, when sleep and rest was not needed as much as it is now. Eventually, Sasha and I, along with the majority of our party, fall into a deep sleep and wake around 7pm – only to rise for supper and then go back to bed. I wake in the middle of the night, utterly disoriented. I try waving my hands in front of my face, but the world is total darkness. Night. I close my eyes again and fall into a sound sleep until morning comes.
Watermelons and fantastic views for breakfast
At dawn, I am woken by the sound of birdsong, dogs barking, sheep baaing. I snack on a fresh, juicy watermelon – they lie scattered on the ground by various fences, while mine comes from the garden here – and I walk outside. The fresh air is piercing, while the lush green surroundings invite hikes up the highland meadows to go stare into a perfectly blue sky. Having slept ever so well, I am filled with energy and roaring to go.
Today, we will look around the district and hike to Dartlo. Janek, Bartek and I are also shooting footage for the fourth film season on my YouTube channel – this year, we have already shot Tusheti (hence in three days time we are going for two nights to Sighnaghi, otherwise known as the city of love), and then to the Georgian savannah – the Vashlovani Nature Reserve National park. We are in luck: it is summer, hence as well as seeing amazing landscapes all about us, we can also meet the locals in their villages.
Since the mid-19th century, the residents of Tusheti – likely to be the descendants of semi-nomadic ethnic groups of Tushetians and Bacbas, who have been living in these regions for almost a thousand years – only spend their springs and summers in the upper parts of the Caucasus mountains. In the autumn and winter, they move with their herds of sheep to the more clement lowlands close to Kakheti, which was given to them by King Levan in the 16th century. In the winters, Omalo and other nearby settlements are only home to maybe a hundred persons. The remaining population only return during the tourist season, which lasts from mid-June until the start of September. Although “tourist season” is saying a bit much – in unspoiled Tusheti one can wander for miles on end and not meet a single soul.
Sacred khati mounds and pagan beliefs
Tusheti is a mysterious region. Its high mountains, rarely below 3000m ASL, mean the first roads were not constructed here until the end of the 20th century! For centuries, the locals lived somewhat isolated from the rest of their nation and the wider world.
As a result, Christianity only reached these regions very late, in the 9th century AD, even though Georgia became a Christian state in the year 337. This is why the local people have held on to ancient traditions, inspired by pre-Christian, Pagan beliefs.
Many of the sacred sites in the region are mounds called “khati” – made of piled-up rocks, these are said to be homes to guardian angels of a specific local family. The people of Tusheti also have other religious customs, dating back to the days of their ancestors and not common in other parts of Georgia – these being events such as Atnigenoba, Mariamoba, Mzebudoba, Tseltsdoba, Didmarkhvae and Khargav, of which I will say more at a later date.
Warriors from Dartlo
Meanwhile, we leave Omalo and drive for an hour along 15 kilometres or picturesque, though challenging, trail through the bio-diverse Tusheti nature reserve to Dartlo (2000m ASL). This is the prettiest historical village in Tusheti, famed for its ancient defensive towers, medieval fortifications, and karseani vernacular stone houses, the ruins of an Orthodox Christian temple and its… beer, a very special sort of brew – regional Aludi beer, made in accordance with ancient recipes and processes.
Instead of drinking that, we go to sightsee the medieval fortified towers. One of the most interesting towers is in the centre of the settlement – this six-storey stone edifice provided the locals with shelter in times of foreign invasions and more local skirmishes, when neighbouring clans were on avenging war paths (this bloody custom was still practiced not that long ago).
Prisoners were held on the first floor, while the men repelled attacks from the sixth, women and children hiding in between those two levels. The second such site – the Kvavlo tower – is perched atop a hill overlooking the village, literally towering over fantastic views of the rivers Didi Khevi and Pirikita Alazani, as well as the Pirikiti range of peaks which touch the local skies.
Idyll on the edge of the world
Along the way, in the very centre of Dartlo, we pass by a parked Lexus. Right next to it, there is a small Japanese car with a trailer attached. And some way further on – horses and cows. And all this diversity somehow fits round here. In a highland setting which really does make the heart stop with its glorious beauty. This sort of “heart stopping” metaphor may in many cases be an exaggeration, but not here.
Tusheti is incredibly beautiful and idyllic. Life is lived here here in a calm rhythm, free of the tensions known to us in the West. At every step, you can admire truly unspoilt natural environments, mountains and over 20 glaciers (one of the most interesting is Tebulo, the highest peak of the Eastern Caucasus and the highest mountain of Chechnya) towering over us, then relax, meet people from villages where time has stopped, to then gallop on horseback through endless mountain meadows. Doing everything or nothing at all.
But Tusheti is a special sport of place – not everyone has the courage to overcome the dangerous trails awaiting us here. Omalo Road is a scary experience, even thrill seekers can admit that. This time, we have the perfect composition – 11 guys hungry for adventure, emotions, unforgettable impressions and unspoiled, virginal nature. The weather is typically mountainous: the sun is not shining, it is rather rainy, wet but quite warm. These are good conditions for trekking. I am especially pleased, seeing as we were rather close to not making it here at all this time.
It’s worth having a Plan B in Georgia
It is customary for Omalo Road to remain unused out of season, roughly from the end of September to June. But even in July and August it can become temporarily impassable, when its surface is battered and beaten by the enraged elements. And this is what happened to us – two or three days before our trip, it was announced that the road to Omalo would be closed on the insistence of local authorities, who had to clear it of debris.
However, not everyone takes the reality of Tusheti seriously, which rules the fate of local shepherds and motorists. I once came across a video shot by our compatriots, posted on Facebook. They were absolutely surprised that they could not reach Tusheti in October – faced with a concrete rampart placed across the road, clearly indicating that it was time to turn back.
Of course, we had a plan B: the Pankisi Gorge, inhabited by Kists, descendants of Chechens who crossed these mountains centuries ago and whom the Georgian king allowed to settle in exchange for military assistance during various wars.
Fortunately, we succeeded. The road was opened and we got to where we originally intended to go.
Tusheti Ghosts playing tricks
Descending from the mountains around Dartlo, I remember the words Radek Wiśniewski, one of my colleagues, once said. In a text about Tusheti, which he once shared on my blog, Radek wrote that during a trek he saw shepherds in the distance. One guide then said: “Look, there is a hamlet between these mountains, there are houses still.” “Yes, I see, it’s still Georgia.” “And you see, a bit further, Georgia is also there, but those shepherds you see are already Chechens.”
Different ethnic groups, influences and cultures mix on Tusheti lands. Living in isolation for hundreds of years, they form a phenomenal conglomerate which has remained unchanged to this day. When I am here, when I see these towers in the fog, the sun emerging from behind mountains and clouds from time to time, the night skies full of stars, I think about local deities and ancient beliefs. The imagination suggests intriguing motifs, sometimes playing tricks, taking you into a world of local magic.
Many people reject this fairytale aspect of it, taking things literally, but I want to communicate them in my own way, complicating things somewhat. Andrzej Ziemkiewicz, one of my most important literary influences, once wrote that I had something of a “talent for making things complicated”. Not in the way I live my life, but in the way I narrate things, in my own personal way. Apart from my tourist activities, my blogging and YouTube’ing, I have also written two books of poetry and, being a poet at heart, my soul is a truly romance-filled thing. But I am also a prose writer, for I soon plan to publish my book titled Polishgeorgian – a collection of articles, essays and new texts which have not been published yet – all helping to shed light on what Georgia and its people mean to me.
To marry a Georgian woman and fall head over heels
We return through the stunning landscapes of Tusheti. Come the evening, Omalo is drowning in a dense, milky fog, called “tuman” from the Russian (probably also the origins of the name of my Georgian ancestors, which is Tumanishvili). Janek and Bartek, taking advantage of its phenomenal, mystical aura, go off to shoot some drone video footage. Step by step, the kids from Lower Omalo follow them in a crowd, loving their new toy!
Confronted by the unbridled nature of Tusheti, surrounded by a white mist of impenetrable fog, I stand and ponder my life. About where I come from, who I am, where I am going. It is 2019, I have been running my own company for some years now, since 2007 dividing my life between Poland and Georgia – as of 2014, based permanently in Tbilisi. Maybe I’m the last Tumanishvili to have returned to Georgia from Poland? I grew up on Georgian books, and the stories I learn from them are an important part of my life. My middle name, Nodar, is Georgian and I try to remember that fact – not to clutter my mind or for marketing purposes, but in order to preserve my own identity and everything I feel about my own true nature.
And I feel very much Georgian, connected to my great-grandmother – Nino Tumanishvili, who moved to Poland after the First World War together with her husband – Aleksander Nowkuński. I also have a lot in common with my beloved grandmother Helena Ciemnołońska, called “Lala” by my family (many women in Georgia go by this name). It is thanks to them that a lot of who I am, my deeper nature, is inherently Georgian. But really only the last element clearly indicates my Polish-Georgianness: on August 31, I will make Sophy, a Georgian woman, my very first wife. My life has changed a lot lately, but I believe it was meant to be. It was luck and destiny which have made me set up home in Georgia, hopefully forever.
A ram by a bottomless lake
On the third day of our trip around Tusheti, we reach Lake Oreti on horseback (each horse costs 50 GEL per person). From Omalo, it’s only 4-5 hours of trekking. Very few members of our group have ever sat on a horse. We edge forward slowly, riding in line without extravagance and hurry, enjoying the great views of Caucasian peaks. At some stages of the journey the trail runs at an altitude of almost 3,000m ASL, taking us through incredibly lush greenery down to a height of 2656m ASL.
Oreti, one of several alpine lakes in the area, is small, shimmering with shades of blue and turquoise – reflecting the sky high above it and the grassy slopes of the surrounding peaks. The lake has not yet been thoroughly explored, so the locals believe that it has no bottom. Legend has it that those who spend the night on the banks of Oreti will feel the energy, inner peace and spiritual integrity the tribal people who once lived here were renowned for. Today, we will see if it is true.
For now, we take a well-deserved break on a small sheep farm in a beautiful clearing. We pay the host 150 GEL, and he chooses a handsome ram for us, preps the animal and cooks a koban kaur (ჩობან ყაურმა) – literally translated as “shepherds’ food”, a traditional goulash stewed in its own sauce, to which, apart from salt, no spices are added. The innards and meat are wrapped in ram skin. This bundle then goes to an earthen pit, a bonfire burning over the top of it. As our earth-covered dinner is cooking, the host offers us homemade beer and wine. Soon it’s time for the main course. The ram tastes great! Rested and well-fed, we move on.
Supra with Metallica
In a mountain hostel near Lake Oreti, Sasha chants Georgian songs and teaches others to sing. For 1500 years, music and dance have been the foundation of Georgian culture. One Greek historian wrote that Georgians sang and danced even when going to war! Well, in my experience, you sing and dance at every opportunity you get here, and the supra feast is the best opportunity we are going to get.
During this traditional feast, you can listen to chakra-polyphonic Georgian folk singing, which has been listed as a UNESCO Treasure of Oral and Intangible Global Heritage in 2008. In 1997, the Georgian song Chakrulo was sent into space on a gold record with the 25 best melodies from around the world. This really is something! Georgian dances are also famed around the globe: kazbeguri, khevsuruli, kartuli, khorumi, acharuli and partsa. They’re all different, but each one is full of emotions and stories hidden behind graceful, temperamental choreography.
Meanwhile, Sasha sings, and we all join him in a melodic backing track: “Woooo”. Hour after hour, minute after minute, our table becomes empty. In good time, only three of us are left, and the evening of Georgian songs becomes the Pol’and’Rock Festival. We listen to Booze & Glory, Metallica and georgian heavy metal band, Sasha accompanying them on his drums.
Various conversations take place at the table
Soon it turns out that Bartek, 19 years old, and I, at 34, are fans of old Polish rock and metal. We sing songs until half two in the morning, tracks we never thought would connect our generations. But it’s important that music always plays in the soul – after all, we were also raising traditional Georgian toasts a moment ago, celebrating our ancestral culture, which we can nurture and thus be anchored in our true identity.
We smoothly move on to converse about alternative music in Georgia (and also about piety, which does not come from religious faith, but from what men have in their hearts and what they want to leave behind). A few years ago, I was passionately looking for bands that play rock, punk, sad, not folklore music. To this day I am friends with Gio Toidze of a band called Tserili (I’ve written about them before, being a real fan of their music). Maybe someday I’ll record one of their songs in Georgian with them – the one I hum to myself every day.
Slowly, everything sinks into Tushetian silence. Maybe it’s the wine, or maybe just my Georgian soul making me plunge into romantic nightly metaphysics again. Four people are swimming in Lake Oreti, the starry sky over their heads. In the background, monumental Caucasus mountains – eternal, having been here forever and ever. We are barely a fragment of time to them, a mere second. But here in Georgia, we celebrate these fleeting moments, the joy of life. Georgian supras, toasts, singing, rock and folk music, stories – all this mixes and blends together when we meet wonderful people. Once again, I have I managed to find a great team, making our shared journey a great experience!
Photos: Jan Bożek and Bartłomiej Rozkładaj
- Local driver with own off-road vehicle – in 2019 r. two Mitsubishi Delicas covering the Alvani – Omalo – Dartlo – Kvemo Alvani route cost 1600 GEL.
- Accommodation in Omalo: guesthouse Shina (Upper Omalo) and Tevdore (Lower Omalo).
- Horse trekking (Omalo – lake Oreti route): 50 GEL per person.