A rag tag militia of Mitsubishi Delicas awaited my arrival to the small in-between town of Alvani. I assume the assembled mass of drivers would generally prey upon two travelers who make their way to the main intersection, but seeing as Abi and I had already paired up with our 4x4-van hybrid nobody bothered to leave the comfort of shade. I was surprised to see the aforementioned vehicle in such quantity here as a friend back home had recently told me it was becoming quite popular to convert these 90’s Japanese rovers into overland travel vehicles. If they are in short supply back in the U.S. it’s because they have all ended up in Georgia. For two hours I waited at the intersection with my driver and hordes of others, all of whom were praying today was the day visitors arrive, no one wanted to miss opening weekend. I was headed into the Caucasus Mountains, to the region of Tusheti, and this high altitude range has a very short tourism window. Mid-June - mid-September pretty much sums it up but a big snow season on either side can shorten that spread. The drivers, all eager to fill a car for the five hour ride, don’t want to miss a chance at what can be a relatively nice payday by local standards. I should have taken it as a warning sign that no other visitors ever came; eventually my car departed.
I’m no stranger to intense mountain roads after South America, but I was quite happy to find the vehicle my driver, a kind man named Mamuka, was piloting seemed to function at a pretty high level. The road to Tusheti may be the worst I have seen. At times a roll indicator would have shown a dangerously sharp angle. Staring at the cliff edge, slowly becoming parallel with the window, I was happy a numerical value was not available to measure the risk. Gushing snow melt flooded the narrow winding road and at times Mamuka went as far as adjusting me, Abi, and a washing machine that was along for the ride to better distribute weight over tricky sections. He was a safe and skilled driver, for this I was thankful upon our smooth arrival in Omalo.
The hike I set out to do was the Omalo to Shatili trek. I tacked on an extra day up front to round it out as a six day/five night 100km walk with the main event being a climb over the Atsunta pass. The weather looked good and the scenery was already spectacular at my launching point, all signs said smooth sailing ahead.
DAY 1: Omalo to Dicklo
In Omalo the crew grew to four as an English/Aussie duo joined up with Abi and me to tackle the first couple days of hiking. For a six day trot my backpack was a manageable weight; the first half of the trip is village to village and small guest houses provide rooms with half board so there is no need to carry more than a couple day’s food. There is also fresh water everywhere from the abundance of snow melt coupled with natural groundwater that flows from every crack across the entire country. Omalo to Dicklo is an easy first leg, mostly along dirt track with relatively limited elevation change. Early season wild flowers bloomed and snow capped mountains slowly encircled me as I ventured deeper into the valley. Arriving to Dicklo, a single guest house was open for the season signaling I was, for sure, on the front end of things. The older couple running the small operation began chatting away as we negotiated prices, they asked (in Georgian) if we spoke Russian, the most common tongue around and in traditional joking fashion I answered no, but offered Español as an empty gesture of cultural openness. To my absolute bewilderment I received a positive reaction. The women called to her son who greeted me with a hola!
Dicklo is a cool village for a few reasons: it’s in a beautiful location, and there is an abandoned cliffside fortress that can be explored, but the truly wild thing is where it’s located geo-politically. Mountains and fortresses are a dime a dozen in this region, but it’s only so often you get to cozy up to some of the more infamous international borders in the world. Dagestan, dubbed “the most dangerous place in Europe” not long ago, and Chechnya are not places often associated with fun outdoor adventure. For most who are familiar, these names a synonymous with dictatorships, warlords, and terrorism. The village of Dicklo is just a gorge and river away from these Russian hotspots. So close in fact, you can see a small Dagestani village from just outside town. Needless to say, I was shocked when I came across a Georgian village, deep in the mountains, on this remote border, where everyone spoke Spanish.
It turns out this entire region shuts down for the winter at which point our new Spanish speaking friend relocates to Spain for work. He has brought many other people from the village along for off season employment over the years and thus Spanish has become an important second language for the local populous. This was amazingly rewarding since I could connect on a much deeper level, and gain more insight into local life. It also justified all that Spanish practice I had put in back in South America.
The sky was beginning to turn and rain was obviously in the future but I wasn’t going to let a little wetness hold up the day. I ventured off to check out the fortress beyond the village and a quarter the way there the sky opened up. About three fourths the way there the dogs arrived… Any source* referenced when researching Tusheti will mention the sheep dogs. Some gloss over the subject, others provide more insight, but one thing is made clear: there are dogs here, and they are not looking for cuddles. I heard the barking from far away, assumed they were just making a fuss and herding their sheep, so I kept going. The barking got closer and soon I could see four dogs. Big, vicious, angry, animals that clearly did not like strangers lingering around. They set up a rugby style back formation angled up the hillside to reinforce their position. No shepherds were visible. The dogs seemed to be acting on their own accord, and they appeared to know what they were doing. I stood still, they inched closer. I moved further away, they followed. For over ten minutes I tried to wait them out but they seemed to have time to play this game. I found an out, there was an alternative route back to town that I could access but it meant giving up on my fortress visit. A cliff edge location was no place to take on a pack of hunters anyway. Ducking out of view and constantly checking my back I safely made it out of dog territory. About half way back a shepherd, standing outside his mountain outpost, confirmed the dogs were operating in that area to protect the sheep. He said there were five dogs total, and four meant no harm. Seeing the group’s disappointment that we didn’t make it to the fortress he decided to play tour guide and escorted everybody back. In rubber boots he casually strolled at a pace I could hardly maintain at full effort. Unfazed by the wet conditions and loose shale ground he ushered me beyond the dogs and up to hidden vistas on the crumbling cliff edge. Around any corner could have been a drop to one's death; but he so casually approached the edge, and with such confidence in his step that it was simply impossible to not follow. Peeking into Russia, the views were incredible.
I had not realized how close I would get to Russia, and the concept had not registered that this could be a sensitive zone. Walking back to Dicklo the dogs once again appeared. Quickly they were of little concern when an armed soldier materialized from the mountainside. A well camouflaged outpost became visible slightly higher up the hill and things became tense when no one could present a passport. He radioed, face stern. A response came, more talk, and suddenly…English. Things relaxed, he warned to carry passports moving forward and then kindly offered advice for the remainder of my time in the mountains, going as far as to call a friend and check the status of Atsunta pass. A border checkpoint at the last village before the pass controls foot traffic and in a grim turn of events he reported it was closed. I had been fearful that the season may be too young to make it through, and his confirmation was devastating. I walked back defeated, there had been mixed messaging about the pass status up until now, but this seemed definitive.
Day 2: Dicklo to Dartlo
Day one of this trek can be considered a warm up, and though eventful, it was not particularly taxing on the body. Day two was a different story. Steep ascents up and over undulations in the valley mixed with muddy conditions made it a physical battle all day; the constant view of sheep made it mentally daunting. With sheep came dogs, and it turns out my first experience with a K-9 sleeper cell was not my last. When sheep would come into view it was important to freeze, determine if any dogs had spotted me, and then quickly identify if a shepherd was nearby. Though the dogs are usually accompanied by people, it is likely they will see you first so making contact with a shepherd as early as possible is key to circumventing close encounters. Unfortunately, this is not always possible and after a few aggressive run-ins I was on edge anytime barking was heard. In a tight wooded portion of the trail the dreaded sound was heading my way. It moved closer, and closer, and closer. The barks turned into an evil chorus on loop, a stampede of beasts was bearing down. I stood just before the crux of a hill, forest on both sides, I saw nothing as the sound intensified. Suddenly, a blast of sheep charged over. They veered at the sight of four humans, now huddled to increase our apparent size. The dogs came, five abreast. Huge behemoths, angered so deeply by an outside presence it felt certain they would maul the group. In a blink of an eye they were within arm’s reach, teeth glistening in fresh saliva, they were thirsty for blood and itching for a fight. In this moment the concept of dogs as pets felt absurd, before me were savage, wild animals, with an instinct based training that said if it’s not a sheep then it should not live. I look back on a blurred, bullet time event, the group grabbed onto one another, encouraging to stay calm and stand our ground. Shepherds eventually appeared over the berm and howled, the dogs dropped back slightly, unwilling to give up position on their prey. Eventually, with much persuasion, attention of the dogs was forced back to the sheep and they dispersed. A deep, almost mournful air fell over the group. This was a meeting too close for comfort with a force that could not have been thwarted, and unfortunately everyone knew it would not be the last.
As the day carried on I had the opportunity to observe more shepherds deal with their four legged infantry and picked up some valuable skills. Some obvious: let them approach and sniff if necessary, stand your ground. Others more unique: yell Georgian gibberish at them (this works on cows as well), and most importantly carry a rock. It’s pretty common in countries with big street dog populations for people to throw rocks at unwanted critters mucking around in garbage, restaurants, and streets. An arm raised in a throwing motion is not an unfamiliar site and most dogs will respond to this threat by backing down and moving away. These dogs were no different and would generally skirt off if threatened. I don’t mean to discredit the day’s hiking, beautiful scenery was resting at every turn, but the stress endured made it a trying, exhausting day. The appearance of Dartlo, signaling the end was a welcomed relief. After finding a cozy guest house room and eating dinner prepared by the only food operation in town, I hit my pillow like a lead weight.
Day 3: Dartlo to Girevi
I woke up early, well before sunrise and things were not good. Rubbing my eyes to clear the fog from my half sleeping brain, I could hardly sit up. Deep pain in my abdominals ravaged me. The previous night’s dinner was not agreeing with my body and terrible things were happening within. I scrambled in the dark to find my headlamp, the solar system didn't have enough juice to turn on even a light after a full cycle of darkness. I stumbled outside causing a ruckus as I navigated fences and pot plants to the external bathroom. I had forgotten my current lavatory predicament in the scramble, but was not excited to be reminded of the Turkish style (re: squatty potty) toilet that gazed at me from the floor. I have no doubt it was equally unenthusiastic about the situation. Through the morning, war raged on in my gut turned colosseum. I pleaded to not continue with the day’s hike; unfortunately, that was not a realistic option and I had to tough it out. By midday things were less of a fire-drill, so I packed up and hit the road for what felt like an infinitely long 15km day. Luckily, the mostly flat terrain along a dirt road was relatively light walking. Halfway I bumped into another backpacker coming from the opposite direction. Immediately I interrogated him about where he had come from and to my delight he had started in Shatili, my ultimate destination, and had traversed the pass. He believed that his crossing was only the third of the season and was hesitant in saying it was a pleasant experience. Nevertheless it was a much needed boost in morale. Girevi was home to the border outpost where permits to cross are issued and he seemed to ultimately confirm they were letting hikers pass. After what felt like an eternity I arrived to the relatively large, yet deserted village. A young girl and her mother greeted me, their home was the only operating guesthouse in town and I crashed onto their comfortable bed exhausted.
Day 4: Girevi to…Girevi
Dehydrated and drained I needed a break. It was grey and overcast, a generally ugly day. Intermittent rain encouraged the choice to remain and our friendly host, nine year old Liza, felt it would be the perfect chance for show and tell with her new foreign companions. Liza and her family live in Alvani during the off season where they farm land and livestock through the long Tusheti winter. In the summer months they relocate to the village of Girevi. Here her parents graze their sheep and operate a small but comfortable, electricity free, guesthouse. Every evening the sheep are herded back to a paddock nearby and in the morning they are milked before returning to the green mountain pastures. They produce huge amounts of sheep’s cheese and sell it throughout the region. Liza joyfully provided a guided tour of the production shed where massive bags, each containing 35+ kilograms of fresh cheese waited to be shuttled away. She transported strained liquid waste from the cheese making process in a 5 gallon bucket that easily weighed as much as she but would not accept assistance. With it we feed the hordes of chickens and turkeys that scrambled every which direction around the house. A goat that had been resting in the front yard upon my arrival was no longer munching on the grass outside; when I asked about its whereabouts my attention was directed to a pot, simmering upon a wood fire. The calm and relaxation eased the troubles of my body, and by the early evening I was certain tomorrow I could carry on.
Later in the day a large group of Lithuanians arrived to the guesthouse. They were a guided tour outfitted with 12 horses, multiple guides, and a few horse drivers; a hodgepodge of people ranging from mid-teens well into their sixties. They were soaked from the rain, and clearly beat form the day’s hike in tough conditions; peace and quiet time at the farm was over. As evening rolled around I paid my visit to the border control office to get my permit for the remainder of the hike. The pass was indeed open but here I met the first deserters from the pass. Two Israelis arrived to the checkpoint as I waited for my papers; they had attempted the day prior to climb over the pass but harsh weather conditions and insufficient waterproofing left them drenched and disheartened. They had turned around and conceded, not even reaching the top, and warned that things got quite a bit more intense moving forward. Permit in hand I got to bed, hoping to catch and early start the next day and beat the worst of the weather.
Day 5: Girevi to Pass Base
Leaving the village of Girevi the hike changes. There are no more villages to arrive upon, no more catered dinners, no more beds. From here on out it is true wilderness and the scenery intensifies to match. The rich green valley no longer extends indefinitely. A mountain roadblock caps the end, and only one willing to climb over can continue beyond. Abandoned slate fortresses and watchtowers rise up from ridges along the way, some dating back to the middle ages, marking a time when this wicked terrain played host to battles along the ever important Caucasus border. Huge avalanche snow piles fed a raging river that needed to be crossed multiple times. With shoes dismounted and strapped to my bag I fought the ripping flow and frigid water, thigh deep at times, to the other side.
Along the way three German hikers whom I had watched pass border control the day before were headed the wrong direction. They had made it to the pass, but the conditions made it too treacherous to continue. Heavy cloud coverage had reduced visibility to nothing, and the slick wet rock was too precarious to trust. When they did get a break in the clouds they were unable to even identify where the trail was leading, it was too risky to move on. They continued their retreat as I forged ahead. With all this warning it was imperative to camp as close as possible to the pass and get up and over early in the day. I hiked past the recommended campground to a smaller site further along the trail. These final three kilometers, and hour maximum on paper, took an eternity to complete. Two rivers were running much higher than expected and required wading through again without shoes. A huge snow dam obscured the way blocking the trail, and though some people would attempt to cross without thinking twice, awareness of the hidden caverns carved underneath from melt water makes it worth avoiding at all costs. A collapse of the snow bank underfoot would almost certainly be lethal. Circumventing the snow proved to be more difficult than expected and already nine hours into the days trekking the trail was taking its toll. After ten hours I found camp. In dramatic fashion the remaining cloud coverage from the day prior began to disperse. Surrounded by striking mountain scenery I cooked dinner under clear sky and hoped for the same tomorrow.
Day 6: Atsunta Pass - UP
As the sun peeked over the surrounding hillside I woke to vibrant blue skies. My bout of food poisoning proved to be a blessing as there was not a cloud to be seen, and not a whisper of them soon to come. I couldn’t believe just how perfect the day looked to be, and was certain this meant I was in the clear. Scarfing down breakfast and breaking down camp as quickly as possible I hit the trail full of energy and confidence. It’s a wicked 700m climb to the pass and each step higher reveals an ever more stunning view of the expansive mountain range. On all sides 4-5000m rocky peaks contrast beautifully with the vibrant valley below and ocean blue sky above. It’s hard to stop taking photos and focus on the task ahead.
Half way up, above the grass line, and across some residual snowfields, things become more challenging. The ground transforms from packed dirt into loose shale rock. With each step the ground gives and shifts, careful stepping becomes the name of the game. Ice sheets blocked the trail so I scrambled up and around on the loose rock. With each step the ground mushed and flowed around my feet occasionally giving out and trying to take me with it. In areas where up and around was not an option I dug my boots in as hard as I could to the slick, icy snow, inching along as any slip would be met with substantial consequence. Perspective began to play tricks on my eyes, and my gaze was met with vertigo when my eyes diverted from the loosely defined trail. The pass became visible and only a final unobstructed assent laid in front of me. I jabbed my poles into the ground a bit harder. With each movement my body filled with new life, the ground began to level off below me. I tossed up my hands and dropped my pack upon reaching the pass markers, I had made it! In celebratory tradition I ripped open a Snickers bar and dug into the chocolaty goodness with all my might. I rejoiced on the ground, no breath remaining to be taken by the stunning view. The climb was over, it was all downhill from here…
To be continued…
*I want to give a shout out to Jozef Antala, the creator of the website Caucasus-Trekking which is without a doubt the most valuable resource one can have when tackling any hike in Georgia. It is remarkable how 100% of hikers in the region are using his site as their primary source of information and I do not think I could have completed this hike without it. A true hero of the internet!