Georgia is an incredible country. It's not a very popular tourist destination yet but everyone who visits it for the first time, wants to return. It's hard not to fall in love with a country that is so diverse and has so many amazing and unique places! For a long time we considered Svaneti as our favorite region in Georgia because of its magnificent landscapes, medieval stone houses and authentic culture. But now that we have seen the even more majestic highlands of Tusheti, we changed our opinion and vote for Tusheti as the most beautiful region of Georgia! We're glad that we got the chance to visit this picturesque and fascinating mountain area and we would highly recommend you to visit it as well if you're planning a trip to Georgia!
Tusheti is a remote region in northeast Georgia and is located on the northern slopes of the Great Caucaus Mountains. There is only one road that goes to the area over the treacherous 2900m Abano Pass. It's a beautiful mountain pass but it's also considered as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. You need a 4x4 vehicle and nerves of steel to cross the pass but it is definitely worth it! The road to Tusheti is only open during 5 months (late May to early October). That's why the inhabitants, the Tushs or Tushetians, nowadays only go up there during summer to graze their cattle, organize traditional festivals, provide accommodation and tours for tourists and reconnect with their roots. In winter they live in the lowland villages of Alvani and Akhmeta in Kakheti.
One of the world's most dangerous and beautiful roads
The road on its own is already a good reason why you should visit Tusheti. The Abano mountain pass is the only accessible road to Omalo, the largest village and center of the region. It takes about 4-5 hours to drive from the lowland village of Alvani to Omalo and the unpaved road has many steep climbs and narrow turns. It goes up to about 3000 meters over the four gorges of Tusheti. The views along the pass are just incredible! You'll drive along rivers, pine forests and alpine meadows and you might even spot a few eagles along the way!
It can be scary to drive right next to the steep cliffs, especially when there are oncoming vehicles. The road is predominantly narrow and it requires some great maneuvering skills! Every year there are cars that tumble into the canyons so it's important that the state of the car's brakes and tires is in optimal condition and that you or your driver is experienced with these type of roads.
We got a ride in a Kamaz truck (a Russian brand of trucks) that was transporting construction materials to Omalo. The driver was very skilled and maneuvered the big truck like a boss! He had to take this road three to four times a week and it was very obvious that he was used to it. Not once did I feel in danger, not even when I saw the steep cliffs right next to me but I can imagine that if you're not used to this kind of driving, it can be nerve-jangling! Especially when there's a lot of fog and mist due to the Alpine climate. We got very lucky that it was a bright and sunny day.
There was only one moment when I was aware of the hazards that this road brings. On our way to Omalo we passed a small group of people standing helplessly around their car. The hood was completely smashed by a big boulder that had rolled down from one of the mountain slopes. They were incredibly lucky that the boulder didn't hit the roof or they wouldn't have been standing there anymore. Looking at their baffled faces, they realized the same thing. So don't only pay attention to the road itself but also look out for falling boulders!
I can imagine that you might not feel super inspired now to visit Tusheti because of the possible dangers. The chances that something will happen are low. We even saw some brave cyclists on this road! Trust me when I say that it is worth the thrill and if you don't feel skilled enough to drive on this road yourself, there are plenty of Delica's (4x4 mini-vans) with experienced drivers that can take you there. Read more about it in the section How to get to Tusheti.
The tower-dotted villages of Tusheti
After about four hours on the road you see small villages popping up. Some are inhabited but most are now empty. There used to be four communities living in Tusheti: Prikiti, Gometsari, Sovata and Chagma. They were separated from each other by the four gorges that divide the region. Chagma, also called Chachakovani, is the only community that is still densely populated. It consist of the villages Diklo, Shenako and Omalo. Omalo is also the largest village of Tusheti. Higher up in the mountains you can find a series of ancient villages such as Dartlo, Chesho, Parsma,... Some of these villages like Parsma aren't accessible by car and you'll have to walk or go on horseback to visit these fairy-tale like places.
You'll also notice a lot of centuries-old tower fortresses (koshkebi) between the villages. They were built on a high hill and were used for communication between the villages during times of invasions or other catastrophes. It was also a great place to attack hostile forces by throwing stones and firing guns at them.
You'll also find evidences of both Christian and Pagan religion in the different corners of this spectacular region. Very interesting are the stone shrines or little piles of stones arranged in a ritual design. They are called khati and it's the place where the family's guardian angel used to live. The khati can be found in every village and is often decorated with the horns of sacrificed goats or sheep and white stones. We visited the khati in Omalo but only later we found out that visitors and women are not permitted to approach khatebi (plural for khati) as they are sacred places. So hereby I want to apologize for our ignorance and I hope I didn't offend anyone by visiting a khati! In our defense we came across it when we were looking for a nice camping spot in a nearby little forest and didn't see any signs that we weren't allowed there.
The culture of the Tushs
The Tushs are traditionally shepherds. The cheese and high quality wool they produced is very famous and got even exported to Europe and Russia. The women are very talented in knitting and pressing felt. They make socks with some beautiful ornaments, woven carpets and fabrics for clothes.
The sheep and cattle breeding are still the leading branch of the economy in the highlands of Tusheti. The shepherds spend the summer months in the highlands but move their cattle and sheep back to the lowland villages in wintertime. The Tushs are therefore known as nomadic people.
We also heard that pork is considered taboo in Tusheti. The farmers don't want to raise pigs and visitors are not allowed to bring any pork into the region but I don't know the reasons behind this.
Practical Travel Information
I would definitely recommend anyone to visit Tusheti, even if it's only for the thrilling drive along one of the most beautiful mountain passes to get there! Here is some useful information:
How to get to Tusheti
The road to the region of Tusheti is only open from late May/ early June until early October.
- By own car
First of all, if you try to look on Google Maps where Tusheti is, you won't find it. Chances are that Google will direct you towards Dusheti, a town near Tbilisi and that's NOT where you want to go (we saved a couple of travelers from making this mistake).
The destination you need is called Omalo. From there you can reach the other villages such as Dartlo, Diklo,... The Abano pass starts in the small village of Pashvili and it's around 70 km to Omalo. It'll take you about 5 hours to get there but don't be in a rush! As I mentioned earlier, it's a dangerous road! Leave as early as possible so you don't end up driving in the dark (you really wouldn't want to do this!!!).
- By public transport
People recommend to take a Delica, a 4x4 Mitsubishi mini-van, in the towns of Zemo-Alvani and Kvemo-Alvani (22km from Telavi). It costs around 40/50 GEL per person (around $20) one way and the Delica leaves once it's full. The ride takes at least 5 hours so make sure to arrive in the morning in Alvani. The cars mostly leave from the central crossroads which is impossible to miss. You can take a mashrutka (public mini-bus) from Telavi to Alvani or from Tbilisi to Alvani. There are also Delica's that go from Tbilisi to Omalo. This will cost you around 70 GEL per person and you can count on a 9 hour ride.
- By hitchhiking
People usually don't hitchhike to Omalo. We weren't even sure if we would make it ourselves. But... we did! So if you want to hitchhike, go to the village of Pshaveli. You can expect a long waiting time as there isn't much traffic, aside from the Delica's for which you have to pay. But if you're patient enough, a local or a truck driver might give you a ride. On our way to Omalo we got a ride in a Kamaz truck, on our way back we got a ride in a small pick-up truck with an elderly driver who also knew the road very well.
→ Note: It's not so easy to hitchhike to upper villages such as Dartlo and Diklo. You can definitely try but it was the first time that I felt limited of not having my own car. You could always pay for a Delica to bring you there but be aware that it can be pricey.
What to do in Tusheti
Tusheti is a great place if you love mountain climbing, trekking and hiking, horseback tours, bike tours,... There are plenty of places in Omalo where you can book these tours or you can pay the visitor center (located just before you arrive in lower-Omalo) a visit. You can get proper hiking maps of the area and go for a one day or multi-day hike to the different villages.
Where to stay in Tusheti
More and more guesthouses are starting to sprout. Make sure to book your stay in advance as the region is becoming more and more popular. You can find a variety of accommodation on booking.com (if you book a guesthouse through this link, we'll get a small commission at no extra costs for you!).
As Tusheti is now a National Park we weren't sure if we could pitch our tent anywhere we wanted. After asking some people, it turned out that it's not a problem at all. You can camp in any place you want. Just don't leave any traces and take your garbage with you!
Warning: if you want to camp in the middle of nowhere, be aware of wild animals (bears, wolves,lynx,...). Don't take your food with you in the tent, instead hang it on a tree at a distance.
Need to know before you go
- There aren't any ATM's or banking facilities so bring enough money with you to pay for food, accommodation and transport.
- I would suggest that you bring your own food as there are only a few little shops and they are very pricey. Some guesthouses also provide meals for an additional price but it can be expensive as this region is very remote!
- Most houses don't have electricity or they use generators. Be aware that you might not always have a warm shower or light at night. Don't expect to find wi-fi there either. But hey, it's great to go back to basics and most guesthouses will provide you with more than just the basics so don't worry too much about your comfort!
Have you been to Tusheti? We would love to hear about your experiences!