It was disgustingly hot here in July, made worse by no air conditioning at home and intermittent air conditioning at work. So through much of the scorching month, I was dreaming of cold wet winters in the Northwest, promising myself I would never, ever, again live in the tropics, and waiting anxiously for my planned trip to Tusheti National Park.
The Tusheti day finally arrived and I met up with Tony and Seth (PCRVs living in Tusheti) and Tony’s friend James who was visiting from Germany. We shared a taxi to the village of Alvani where we bought food and wilted for several hours under the baking sun. Late afternoon we piled in a hired jeep along with the addition of Seth’s host brother and climbed into the mountains—four of us squished together in the backseat while Tony lounged comfortably in the front next to the driver.
I’d been hearing for nearly two months about the terrifying road leading to Tusheti—worst in Georgia people said—but I admit to being mostly unimpressed on that score, maybe because our driver going out was sane. I was not so lucky on the return trip, when my wounded Iraqi war veteran/Romeo/Tushetian driver was skidding around the gravel switchbacks at nearly 10,000 feet with nothing below us but open air. To save us both, I distracted him by getting him to recite famous actors names—he didn’t speak English and talking seemed to slow down his driving.
Good road or bad, the pass was spectacular. We switchbacked up, over, and down and by the time we were nearly in the valley on the far side, I was ready to puke and had to move to the front seat of the jeep, where I stretched out my legs and soon forgot about the peons now squished together in the back.
We arrived in Lower Omalo, the largest village in Tusheti, a few hours before dark, dropped our bags at Tony’s ranger house/converted museum and hiked up to the ancient tower fortifications on the top of a hill in Upper Omalo, about a 45-minute hike from Lower Omalo.
The next day we hiked to the picturesque village of Shenako and then on toward Diklo. Along the way, a police truck passed. We turned down a ride, but when we walked into Diklo they invited us in for a supra of beet salad, an eggplant and potato ratatouille(ish) dish, whole cucumbers and tomatoes, bread, and lots of chacha shots (chacha being a local liquor made from grape residue). Not yet being accomplished at the hiking/drinking combo, thankfully they also gave us a lift back to Omalo.
Our next hike, which Tony couldn’t join us on, was to an alpine lake with a park ranger. That’s all I knew. So when said ranger arrived, young and smiling, with maps and gear and dressed all in black I grew a little worried, thinking he and James would be running up the mountain while I trudged along, hours behind. But we soon stopped at a small hotel out of which tumbled fifteen kids and teachers. A university eco camp it turned out. And since none of these kids had hiking boots, much less quick dry anything, and one of the teachers was wearing a long black sweater and carrying a five-year-old girl in a sparkling black hat and flats, I began to feel a little more confident about the hike.
We started our trek behind a flatulent horse carrying the eco camp group’s lunch, from which several bottles of beer were clearly visible. Up, up we went, through mud and trees and rivers and rolling hills of wildflower, past sheep herder camps and waterfalls and ancient tower fortifications. Most of the students dropped behind as we rose. Eventually I too had a hard time walking and developed a headache. It wasn’t until we reached the tiny alpine lake and one of the students got a bloody nose that I realized the problem—I was feeling the 8,000 ft altitude. I waded into the water and then fell asleep on a hill and an hour or so later the rest of the students and teachers arrived.
They set up for lunch and pulled out chacha and beer and passed around shots. Have I mentioned that Georgians like to drink? And share?
I knew there would be no ride back this time, so I kept declining the chacha offers, although I did finally drink a small cup of beer before falling back into my stupor in the shade of some faux ancient structure. The students, meanwhile, were learning about mapping from the ranger and racing up and down the hill to take GPS points and bathe in the lake.
On the return, James, who’d had plenty of chacha and beer, was in a race to get down before dark, so we were way ahead of the students when we came upon a herd of cattle and three barking sheep dogs. Perhaps my next move wasn’t smart, but I’ve been attacked by a dog and instinct took over—I raced a few feet back and jumped atop a large concrete tube, leaving James to the demon hounds.
He wasn’t so happy at my decision, but he did slowly back up and join me on my large tube while the vicious sheep dogs continued circling, barking and growling. I was quite ready to sacrifice James if for nothing else then making me run down the mountain, but luckily the cows eventually moved on and two of the dogs followed. One stayed though, jumping up on a hill to challenge us face to face, letting us know he was perfectly capable of leaping across the divide, landing on our puny little mount and tearing open our throats. But finally, eventually, he left, charging down a hillside. We scurried back to the road, at which point I agreed with James that we should walk very quickly.
And only twelve short hours after setting out, we were back in Omalo. Luckily the days are long in summer.