A remote region of high mountains, pristine nature, ancient villages and... one of the most dangerous roads in the world to get there. That’s what I knew about Tusheti. Oh, and there was supposed to be a cultural festival too.
The dangerous road part was already enough to intrigue me. Generally, dangerous in the mountains equates to stunning beauty. I also like the challenge of driving difficult roads. I’ve been doing a lot of it over the past few years. Though dangerous is a subjective concept and people tend to exaggerate.
More about the road. My wife Tanya bought so much into the idea of how dangerous it was that she decided to stay in Tbilisi with Mia (my daughter). Instead I was joined by a new friend – Tata. She’d been to the region before and had some ideas of what we could see there.
In case the road really was as difficult as advertised, it made sense to have another person with me. Off we went, one early morning, after camping just at the bottom of the mountains.
So is the road as difficult and as dangerous as people say? I think a lot depends on the conditions, the weather. When we went, the conditions were perfect. No rain, no landslides, no rivers washing away the road. Still, you can see that a part of the road is a winding serpentine. It goes over the almost 3,000 metre Albano pass.
The main reason why the road has been dangerous and has taken so many lives (there's a cross to the dead every few kilometres) is – alcohol. Why people would drink and then drive this road is beyond rational reasoning, but that's exactly what happens. Drink driving in these parts is something of an epidemic. One young man told me that in the past the locals thought alcohol would give them special powers to conquer the road.
The latest tragedy involved a man in his early twenties. He took the car keys which his father hid from him, drove drunk to a neighbouring village at night, drank more there, got into an argument, drove away and then passed out behind the wheel.
I crashed my Mavic into the side of a mountain
The drive itself wasn’t the adventure that I expected. An unexpected adventure came when I flew my Mavic drone into the side of the mountain. I had very recently killed one Mavic’s camera and my Phantom 4 was stolen from a friend’s car. I wasn’t ready to lose a third drone within less than a month! So, I set off to look for my beloved gadget. It was still sending me a video signal, meaning it wasn’t dead.
The mountain slope was ridiculously steep. I had no idea how to get up. Desperation gives birth to a way though. I climbed, crawled and clawed my way up the slope. I even slid down on my ass when it felt safer than walking down. Rocks were sent flying from beneath my feet and plants were torn, as I used them to pull myself up when there was nothing else to hold on to.
I had the approximate GPS coordinates of the drone, but I hadn’t loaded the map onto the iPad. I climbed up and down twice without success. Two hours of hopelessly searching. Exhausted, since I am not a mountain person – I rarely even hike in the mountains, let alone climb them.
Finally I found a spot with enough internet signal to download the map. I saw the satellite image and I marked the spot on Google maps in my phone. To bring the phone in my pocket was much more feasible than bringing the iPad.
At last, this idea led me to the Mavic. Apart from a big dent in the battery – no damage. It took me almoest four hours to find it. Muscles cramping, face sunburnt and my clothes smelling of goat shit, since I slipped into some along the way. I came out victorious. You see that waterfall in the photo above? I completely laid down in a very similar one and washed my clothes of the goat shit too.
Like a fairytale
We arrived in Omalo – the most developed village in Tusheti at sunset. From a distance the site of the village stunning. It’s like driving into a fairytale. As seems to be the general rule around these parts, the defence towers stand on a hill, above the houses.
Virtually no one lives in Tusheti all-year-round any more. Even those who spent their youth in the region now live in the villages below. It’s too cold, there’s too much snow and there’s no way out, except by helicopter.
After some quick exploring, we set up camp in what I thought was the best spot around Omalo. On a hill above the village, with a perfect view of the towers. Quiet enough not to be bothered by any noise. Close enough to walk into the village for dinner.
We asked a woman at a local restaurant about the cultural festival. She didn't seem to know much, except that there would be music in the evening and some activities in a few days. Since there was no need to be near Omalo for the festival, we decided to explore Tusheti.
Hitting the road in Tusheti means that sooner or later you will encounter a traffic jam. Except it's very different from Tbilisi. Instead of cars, there are animals – sheep and goats. No matter how much you honk, until the shepherds can get the animals to a wider part of the road – there's not much you can do. Just enjoy the show.
The surrounding villages were as picturesque as I imagined, but there wasn't really that feel of culture and tradition in the air. Not beyond most other places in Georgia. Perhaps it's because most of the residents were now living in modern cities. Perhaps, it's the intense construction of new guesthouses. They were popping up everywhere.
Most of the buildings stood in a semi abandoned state, but they were very much occupied. People were spending time here. Getting away from the heat in Tbilisi and from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Tourists were coming through, looking for places to rest, to drink. The region is a hiker's paradise. Tusheti is beautiful and vast. There isn't pollution or loud noise and, there aren't much worries about the world outside, while you're here.
It makes a lot of sense to develop Tusheti for tourism. In fact, without any locals truly living in the villages, it's like a blank slate. You can do anything. Even in abandoned villages like the one above, there are now little hotels. You can only get to this hotel on foot and horse, but the fact is, it's a hotel in an abandoned village.
We found out about the hotel as we came to the end of a road. It was the closest point to Kvavlo, the abandoned village. I wanted to fly my drone from there.
Soon a couple of boys with horses arrived (that's one of them above). Then a 4X4. A Tushet man and a girl from Gori, Georgia got out of the car. She told us she was going to stay in this remote hotel. "It was the nicest and quietest accomodation in the region."
Tata, my friend had been to Tusheti 3 years earlier. She was finding herself surprised time and time again. Hotels, guesthouses and other little tourism related enterprises were appearing in places which seemed completely forgotten by the world before.
This lady lived at the edge of the last bit of road in Georgia. And by road I simply mean a rough dirt track. She sold home made cheeses and socks, which she knitted. Not too pushy to sell anything to anyone, but firm enough to make us know what she was offering.
One of the best things about Tusheti is that you can camp virtually anywhere. And virtually everywhere you will be surrounded by beauty and tranquility. One of the nights we camped by a river. It wasn't very swimmable, as the flow was too fast, but it provided a great ambience.
The highlight of this camping spot for me was a small creek further inside the wooden area. I set up my portable shower on a tree and, showered amidst nature – birds chirping and the sun peaking through the forest canopy.
The good people of Tusheti
The people of Tusheti are very laid back and their understanding of private space is definitely different to those from in the low lands, where population is more dense. I guess despite most of the Tushets having moved from the mountains, the mentality has stayed the same.
I didn't interfere much in people's lives. There are enough tourists coming through the villages that I didn't want to bother anyone by sticking my camera everywhere before getting to know the people. However, in my experience, Georgians in are pretty curious. Regardless of where they are from, if they can communicate with you, there will be a conversation. While shooting at an intersection in a village I struck a conversation with a couple of elderly folks. They asked me about me and we ended up talking for an hour.
One of the elders was Martsia, so named because he was born on the 1st of March. Martisa remembers that he hadn't seen a motor vehicle in his village till he was seven. They lived in Shenako all-year-round. To get to the lowlands – it was three days by horse. Unnecessary trips weren't made.
Martsia invited us to his home. Tata said that in Georgia, when you invite someone to your home, you generally lay out more food on the table than the guest can eat. If you can't do that, you generally don't invite people over.
Times weren't easy now and since most people only come for a few weeks, their supplies and ability to show hospitality to guests are limited. Martsia's invitation came with a disclaimer. "We don't have much, but please at least come for tea." Even the tea invitation wasn't just tea. It was accompanied by some very tasty fig jam.
Martsia remembered the past with fondness. "Life was simpler then. Less worries. It was hard, definitely, but now things are so chaotic. So much to worry about. Where to get money. How to survive in the city."
He lived and worked for a while in Russia and was now receiving his pension from there, while residing in Tbilisi most of the year. He comes back to Tusheti every summer. This year one of his sons visited, with a half Russian grandson. The family are thinking of opening a guesthouse too. One day.
Martsia took us for a little tour of Shenako, while telling about what life was like while people still lived in Tusheti through the winters. When we parted ways he invited us to come back next year. He'd be in charge of the village celebration then.
Dima is a shepherd. I saw him along the road to Chesho with his medium size flock of sheep. I was a little confused about what he was telling me, as his Russian wasn't great. What I gathered was that he was single, no family. He had enough material wealth – a house and a car all the way in Batumi.
He took the sheep up into the mountains to graze "For business purposes." But because he didn't actually need to share any of his wealth, he said that this summer might be his last. "What do I need more money for? I'm getting tired of this. Sure it's nice to be amidst nature, but, it's tiring looking after the sheep."
We continued to Chesho and came across a village celebration. It seems that every year every village has its own celebration. It involves a large meal, lots of alcohol and occasionally, horse racing.
The celebration has two parts. We arrived for the first. The elders talked about traditions in Tusheti, their ancestors and the sacrifices they made. Then – drinking and food. I had the best eggplant ever here and any home-made khachapuri is better than anything you find in a restaurant.
The men tried to seduce me to drink. "There aren't any police here! Don't worry!" Was a common thing to say. "It's not the police I'm worried about! These roads... I can't drive here drunk! It's suicidal!" It seemed that none of the locals really saw the big deal in having a little drink. I had half a glass of wine and said that we really have to go because we need to find a camping spot before it gets dark.
At the celebration I chatted to a friendly and very sociable man in his late 40s named Zaza. He spoke good Russian and worked in tourism. He translated what the elders were saying and invited us back for the second part of the celebration in a week.
It was to my great surprise that Zaza turned up at our camping site after dark. Actually, it was his car that turned up first, almost tumbling over from a rocky road. Zaza was drunk and he didn't quite see where to descend from the road onto the meadow where we were camping. He almost tipped over his car. It was a miracle that he didn't, though he did acquire plenty of new dents and scratches.
Zaza reminded us that he was working in tourism. He invited us for coffee in the morning and he asked me for a favour. During the meal I told him that I was going to fly the drone in the morning. I guess in a moment of semi-soberness, Zaza decided that my drone photos could somehow be useful for his business. Especially considering that he too was opening a guesthouse soon. I said - "Sure."
Moments later Zaza's friend, a young man on a horse tuned up (pictured above). He was giggling and he was high on weed. "You guys want to smoke?" Asked Zaza. "Eh, no, thanks." We replied together. "Ok, well, I've leave you to it. Don't forget, tomorrow morning - coffee at my place."
The next morning we were treated to beautiful views – more mountains and more towers. I got the drone airborne to create the images I wanted. I even flew over Zaza's house to photograph it for him.
It's funny how random meetings on the road often lead to nearly life-saving situations. When I started the car, my clutch pedal was stuck. It kept getting stuck when I drove. I managed to get to Zaza's place. After our coffee and some chit chat, I asked Zaza if he knew much about cars. I told him about the clutch pedal issue. In my past experience it meant serious problems. I was concerned.
Zaza knew a lot about cars. "Have you checked your clutch fluid?" Was his first question. "Eh, no..." I still know very little about cars. Even though I spend most of my time traveling around the world in cars. "Yep. You're out of clutch fluid. You could have really fucked it, if you kept going. I'll fill it up for you."
And just like that, a chance encounter prevented my journey from being cut short and saved me a whole lot of money. I thanked Zaza, got his email and promised him some high-rez images of his surroundings.
Drones and sheep
There are loads of sheep in Tusheti. People take them up the mountains to graze on juicy grass during the warmer months. I'm still looking for the perfect "drone sheep shot". There’s awesome visual potential in getting a huge flock from above within dramatic surroundings. Tusheti provided great opportunities, except I never saw any sheep under beautiful light of the setting sun.
One important thing about sheep and drones. As soon as the drone comes down close enough, the sheep really notice it. In fact, they become scared of it. And, when sheep are scared, they bunch up together. You can say that I accidentally herded the flock above into this one closely nit mass.
I think the shepherd was having a nap and after he heard all the noise and saw the movement, he must have freaked out at least little. I heard of a shepherd in Kazakhstan herding sheep with a drone. The idea seems totally legit.
As you can see, the sheep were very curious about the flying object. They'd look, bunch up together and move away. I couldn't continue this for long. I wasn't sure whether the shepherd actually wanted the animals moving in that direction. I didn't want to create a mess. It seemed that exactly the same thing happened with every flock, so I knew that I only had a certain amount of time before things got out of control.
Perhaps if the shepherds whose sheep saw my drone ever crossed paths, they'd have the same strange story to share. Zaza told me that some of the villagers at the celebration were totally puzzled when they saw "something flying out of the forest". The alcohol must have made their experience even more intense.
During the last night, we again camped just outside of Omalo. The moon was near full and I took a photo of the towers in the dark. We were still to see any of the cultural festival, which was posted about on the internet.
There were activities every evening, but they were not really the cultural, traditional events that we thought we might see. Electro music and experimental theatre were the last things I expected to see in Tusheti. However, since most of the offspring of the local population were now city folk, this was the new order.
What about the horse races and all sorts of horse related activities? They were supposed to be the highlights of the festival. There was a horse race on the last day. We would have missed it, if we didn't make the journey to check up on it a few times.
One time, as we made our way towards Lower Omalo, there was a road block. "A horse race is about to take place. Please wait 15 minutes." We were told by a couple of guys with an ambulance blocking the road. "Finally! We're gonna see it!" And then... Five horses, two minutes and bam – horse race over.
While an ending like this would be anti-climactic, I decided that it was time to go back, see my girls and prepare for the next journey. We'd spent about a week wandering around Tusheti. The lack of the promised festival was slightly frustrating, but ultimately, of little importance. There was much more to Tusheti.
My initial plan was to begin the drive to Tbilisi in the evening and to camp right at the top of the Albano pass. Tata talked me out of it. At almost 3000 metres, it would be very cold. She also previously had a bad experience after a sudden change of altitude, which is what would await us the next day.
We decided to find a camping spot over the pass, at a lower altitude. The problem – there weren't any spots that we deemed safe enough. Tusheti is well known for landslides and rocks falling from the mountains onto the road. We saw some recently fallen rocks on the way. Camping right next to a mountain was hence unadvisable.
Camping closer to the edge of the road was not advisable for a different purpose – the drink driving. While the mathematical chances were small, there wasn't a guarantee that a passed out driver wouldn't smash into my car on his way into the abyss.
And so, I drove and drove. By the time we found a safe spot, I had driven down the entire distance of the allegedly dangerous road in complete darkness. In a strange and perhaps somewhat childish way, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Like I had conquered the road.
Tbilisi was now within just 1 hour drive, so I kept going. As we hit the asphalt and street lights replaced trees, Tusheti quickly started to feel a mystical, faraway land.