Hiking in Tusheti

Tusheti National Park, on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, is part of a complex of parks and villages inhabited by the Tush people. Traditionally, the Tush are sheep herders and nomads, spending the summer months in the highland areas of Tusheti and moving to the lowland villages of Zemo Alvani and Kvemo Alvani in winter.

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.

The Alvano pass to Tusheti is the highest drivable pass in the Caucuses.

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.

The tower houses were used until the end of the 19th century. They have a ground floor for cattle and women’s activities, a middle area for families, and a top area for men’s bedrooms and a watch tower. When deciding on where to place a settlement, they would dig a hole on the selected place then spend the night waiting for a dream to give them a sign.

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.

Oreti Lake is a 4-5 hr hike from the village of Omalo. It is 7,800 ft (2400 m) above sea level and surrounded by birch forests, subalpine meadows, and rhododendron bushes.

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?

A beer above Oreti Lake thanks to the eco camp kids.

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.

Stand-off with the sheep dogs.

Since the encounter with the vicious, yet oh, so pretty, sheep dogs, I’ve been compelled to recreate the scene in varied forms—ala “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Note that pigs are taboo animals in Tusheti, which might be the reason for this particular stand-off.

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.

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10 Comments on “Hiking in Tusheti

  1. I can so relate to the heart-pounding drive up and down mountains… I remember thinking I would never come out alive while riding a bus in the Himalaya! Glad you are safe and sound. And in case you haven’t heard, it’s been ungodly hot in Missouri this summer, too! :-))
    Hope your birthday was cool and wonderful.
    Love,
    Aunt Mary

    • Think you all have probably had it worse in terms of the heat this summer. We’ve got lovely clouds and rain here at the moment and it’s cooled down. Yay!

  2. You lowlanders are pussies, haha! Hiking at 8,000 is nothing. Now hiking at 13,000, that’s where it really starts to affect a person.

    • Two months in Tbilisi with little exercise didn’t help, but still, I am a Florida girl, first time I stayed in Boulder I had a slight headache the entire week.

  3. Oh, and also, those sheepdogs man, those things are huge! We ran into a herd of cattle with a sheep dog while hiking in Xevi, but we stayed pretty well clear of it.

    And nice recreation.

  4. I too have had some wild encounters with altitude. The first time I ever encountered a Mountain Pass was in Colorado, driving by myself to LA in the 60’s before I70 (or for that matter much of any road was there). I thought a Pass meant to “pass between” the high peaks. At about 8000 feet I realized I was misinformed and survived the 11,000+ foot drive – I stayed in the lane with the big trucks! I was telling Patricia I loved living at high altititudes in Idaho and Washington, after aclimating I felt really good.

    Love ya, Aunt Nancy

    • Wasn’t there a bear story on that trip too? Or is that a different road trip?

  5. LOVE the re-creation of one of your danger scenarios. (Thanks for not doing this with your man/dog in the park story:) Keep doing crazy things so we can enjoy them vicariously.

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