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Tusheti and Khesuvreti maps

The mountain region east of Khevi is Khevsureti, a sparsely populated district bordering Chechnya that is home to some fantastic mountain defensive architecture and some unique traditions – including a part-animist religion, the wearing of chain mail well into the 20th century and costumes embroidered with unusual, tiny cross and star patterns – as well as being credited with inventing khinkali.

This is one of the most remote and unchanged areas of Georgia, a country where adherence to ancient traditions is very highly prized. The Khevsurebi are known for their unique textiles, with beautifully embroidered stars and crosses, probably a simplification of the pagan sun motif. The men are popularly supposed to have worn Crusader-style chain mail until the 1930s, and at the time of the protests after the 9 April 1989 massacre they certainly appeared in Tbilisi wearing 'knee- length, richly patterned tunics with half-metre silver daggers strapped to their waists'.

In the 1920s the population of Khevsureti was about 4,000, but nowadays many actually live in Tbilisi and only about 400 still live full-time in the mountains. You may still be able to buy socks made from the wool of their aboriginal strain of sheep, and dyed only with natural products. The Khevsurebi are known for their brevity and straightforwardness, and for their unique poetry; they may actually speak in verse on day-to-day matters.

Their religion is still very pagan; icons are forbidden, and there are no real churches, only tiny sanctuaries for strange sacrificial rituals which may involve the dekanozi or priest drinking blood and 'sacred beer'. Beer is brewed to an ancient recipe (utterly unlike the Germanic lager found elsewhere in the region); the Khevsur firewater is zhipitauri, like vodka but more lethal. On the altar you're likely to find deer antlers and ram's horns instead of a cross. They are surrounded by spirits or vohi such as Sakhlis Angelosi, guardian of the household; Mparveli Angelosi, guardian of wanderers; Goris Angelosi, guardian of the mountains; and Did Gori, the Father of the Great Mountain, responsible for storms and avalanches. Others are Otchopintre, a version of Pan, and Dali, the Georgian Artemis, while St George is identified as the god of war.

Today Khevsureti’s old culture is clinging to life. But its spectacular villages and landscapes of steep, forested valleys and blooming mountain pastures are still there to be enjoyed by determined travellers who don’t mind the scarcity of transport and food. Incipient tourism provides some sustenance for a few villagers. Those visitors who come should bring at least some food with them, and some warm clothes as it can get cold at night even in summer. It’s also a big help if you’re prepared to camp.

The road to Khevsureti turns northeast off the Georgian Military Highway shortly before the Zhinvali Reservoir and runs up the Pshavis Aragvi valley to the villages of Barisakho and Biso, before turning east (now a jeep track) and over the high Datvis-Jvari Pass (open from about June to October), and then northeast down the Argun valley to Shatili, the main village of inner Khevsureti.

Barisakho, about 100km from Tbilisi, is the largest village of the region, with a population of about 200. At Korsha, 2km past Barisakho, there’s a small but interesting museum of Khevsur life, with armour, weapons, agricultural implements and the art of its curator, Shota Arabuli. From Korsha it’s about a 7km walk up to Roshka , a small, muddy village off the main road, on the route towards the Roshka (Chaukhi) Pass.

East of Biso, Gudani village, about 1km up from the road, is a striking group of tower houses on a rock outcrop. Some 8km past Gudani comes the Datvis-Jvari Pass (2876m), from which it’s 18km northeast to Shatili.

Shatili (1,395m) is the main village of Khevsureti. It's an almost unspoilt complex of over 50 defensive towers and ancient houses with wickerwork balconies (some dating from the 6th century, though most are from the 10th-12th centuries) huddled together on a low cliff, facing another of Tamar's castles. They were largely abandoned in the 1950s then partially restored in the 1970s, when Shevardnadze also built a new village around the corner beyond a soccer pitch-cum-helipad; bizarrely, there's a row of villas with big balconies overlooking the Argun River. But several towers have recently been restored and one contains a museum.

From Shatili the track continues 3km northeast to the border of Chechnya. Before the border you’ll encounter a ‘No Entry’ sign, but you can turn south up the Andaki valley to almost-empty Mutso, about 8km from Shatili. Mutso’s roofless old village on a very steep rock pinnacle across the river is one of the most spectacular in Khevsureti, with large stone tombs in which you can see human skulls. Ardoti is 6km further up the valley beyond Mutso. From Andaki (uninhabited), a similar distance beyond Ardoti, begins the very steep route over the 3431m Atsunta Pass into Tusheti.

Getting There & Away

Despite the Chechen war Khevsureti is safe enough as there are plenty of Georgian frontier troops (who will check your papers) and OSCE observers (unarmed foreign military officers) based here. The OSCE's daily helicopter flights will occasionally remove people who manage to hike in from places like Djuta.

Khevsureti is reached by the road up the Pshavis Aragvi Valley from km26 on the Georgian Military Highway, south of the Zhinvali Dam; take the road at right angles which soon heads south down to a bridge, and then turns north through the village of Zhinvali. It turns right up a side valley, crosses the stream and soon swings left to a junction about 3km from the highway. The Khevsureti road heads left here, while another turns right to Tianeti, in Kakheti.

One bus a day leaves Tbilisi’s Didube bus station for Barisakho (8 GEL, three to four hours, 5pm) and Korsha, 2km beyond. The bus sets off back for Tbilisi from Korsha at 8.30am. Beyond Korsha, it’s a question of walking or trying to get a lift with one of the few passing vehicles, unless you have your own transport or can organise some from Tbilisi.