Tucked into Georgia’s far northeast corner, with Chechnya to its north and Dagestan to its east, Tusheti is an increasingly popular summer hiking area but remains one of the country’s remotest and most fascinating and pristine high-mountain regions. The road over the nerve-jangling 2900m Abano (Tseri) Pass was not built until 1978; Tusheti still has no public electricity supply, and evidence of its old animist religion is plentiful in the form of stone shrines known as khatis, decked with the horns of sacrificed goats or sheep, which women are not permitted to approach. Tall defensive towers ( koshkis) still stand in many villages, many of them dating back 600 years or more.
The region of Tusheti was effectively autonomous as a tribal democracy until the end of the 17th century, and a road was not built here until 1978-82; power lines were also installed then, but these are now derelict and there is, simply, no electric power in Tusheti, and no telephones either. GSM mobile phones do work in places but have to be charged by generators. It's similar in many ways to Svaneti, with similar traditions of hospitality coupled with building spectacular defensive towers. The scenery is almost as spectacular as in Svaneti, with peaks up to 4,500m, deep gorges and high waterfalls, and well-preserved pine forests of Pinus kochiana. Tusheti delicacies include kotori, a bread with a cheese and potato filling and very salty gudiskweli cheese, made of sheep's milk in a bag (guda) of sheepskin, with the wool on the inside. There's also homemade beer and zhipitauri firewater (as in Khevsureti).
Today most Tusheti folk only go up to Tusheti in summer: to graze their sheep or cattle, attend festivals, cater for tourists and generally reconnect with their roots. Many have winter homes in and around Alvani in Kakheti. The road to Tusheti is only open from about early June to early October, and some of the homestays may not open till July.
Tusheti has two main river valleys – the Pirikiti Alazani and the more southerly Gomtsari (Tushetis) Alazani – which meet below Omalo, the biggest village, then flow east into Dagestan. The scenery everywhere is a spectacular mix of high, now-covered, rocky peaks, deep gorges, and steep, grassy hillsides where distant flocks of sheep appear as slowly shifting patterns of white specks.
It's also the administrative centre for the Tusheti National Park (www.tusheti.ge), which comprises a total of 16,297ha in the Tushetis, Batcharis and Babaneuris reserves. In the Batchara Gorge, north of Akhmeta, there's a unique forest of yew trees, up to 25m high, 1.2m in diameter and 2,000 years old; The Babaneuris Reserve, just north of Kvemo Alvani, has yews about 1,000 years old, from 950m to 1,350m altitude. The Tushetis Reserve protects possibly unique virgin forests of pine (2,000-2,200m) and birch (2,300-2,600m).
Sights & Activities
Most of the villages are around 2000m above sea level and have picturesque settings, either sitting above near-sheer hillsides or nestling down by one of the rivers. There’s a particularly splendid group of old towers, known as Keseloebi, on top of the crag at Zemo Omalo, the upper part of Omalo. Shenakho, a few kilometres east of Omalo, is one of the prettiest villages, with its houses of stone, slate and rickety wooden balconies grouped around Tusheti’s only functioning church. Diklo, 4km northeast of Shenakho, has an old fortress perched on a spectacular rock promontory. Dartlo, about 12km northwest of Omalo in the Pirikiti Alazani valley, has another spectacular tower grouping, overlooked by the single tall lookout tower of Kvavlo on the hill 350m above.
Walking routes are innumerable. Omalo to Shenakho and Shenakho to Diklo are two good short walks of a couple of hours each (one way). A good route of about five days starts in Omalo or Shenakho, runs up the Pirikiti Alazani valley to Dartlo and Chesho, then crosses the 2900m Nakaicho Pass over to Verkhovani in the Gomtsari Alazani valley, and returns down the Gomtsari Alazani.
The track up the Pirikiti Alazani valley beyond Chesho, through Parsma and Girevi, eventually leads to the 3431m Atsunta Pass, a very steep and demanding route over into Khevsureti. It’s a one-week trek all the way from Shenakho or Omalo to Shatili in Khevsureti.
If you prefer to ride, horses are available in Omalo and Shenakho for between 35 GEL and 70 GEL per day.
Getting There & Away
When the Abano Pass is open, Niva 4WDs run daily to Tusheti from Alvani, 22km northwest of Telavi, charging 180 GEL for three or four passengers to Omalo. You can also hire one to pick you up for the return trip. Be at Alvani by 9am – they mostly leave from the central crossroads there. The spectacular drive takes about four hours plus stops.
For a cheaper, less comfortable and even more exciting ride, most days a large Kamaz truck carrying a mix of freight and passengers lurches its way precariously from Alvani up to Tusheti, taking six or seven hours to Omalo. They leave any time between 6am and noon, when they have a load.
Marshrutkas run to Alvani (45 minutes, once or twice an hour, 9am to 5pm) from the old bus station in Telavi.