Through the Caucasus with pack horses

Due to its location between Europe and Asia, Georgia has experienced many changes in its history, which we want to trace on a trek along the border with the Russian Federation. The starting point of our 8-day trekking tour is 190 kilometers from Tbilisiinternationally, the Georgian1name Tbiisi (translated: warm spring) has become accepted for the Georgian capital, the capital of Georgia. Even getting there requires an all-terrain vehicle, as it’s over the Abano Pass, a road that in a BBC documentary2Video: Nerve-Shredding Moutain Pass as the most dangerous road in the world. Bulldozers stand at the side of the road at short intervals, having to keep clearing the gravel road of debris.

Der Abano-Pass in der Bergregion Tuschetien ist der höchste befahrbare Pass Georgiens. Die Schotterstraße nach Omalo, zählt zu den gefährlichsten Routen der Welt / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Abano Pass in the mountainous region of Tusheti is the highest pass in Georgia that can be driven over. The gravel road to Omalo, is one of the most dangerous routes in the world / © Photo: Georg Berg

Our journey leads us through the oldest wine growing region3Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus in the world. In the gardens of the Alawerdi Monastery grow over a hundred different varieties of grapes originally from Georgia. Already here we learn about an important achievement for the ethnic group of the Tusks, whose original settlement area in the highlands of Tushetia is cut off from the outside world for months in winter. In the 16th century, the leader of the victorious army that defended this province of Georgia against the Persians was allowed to make a request to the king. He asked for a piece of land where there is hardly any snow in winter. King Levan promised him the land, which he could cross from the monastery of Alaverdi on his horse without a break. Since then, the Tusks have found a new home in the fertile Alwani Valley.

Der Dom im orthodoxen Alawerdi-Kloster ist die drittgrößte Kirche Georgiens.  / © Foto: Georg Berg
The cathedral in the Orthodox Alawerdi Monastery is the third largest church in Georgia / © Photo: Georg Berg

After eight hours of driving, we reach Omalo at an altitude of 1,880 meters. This small village is the administrative center of Tusheti. Before the upcoming hiking stages with overnight stays in tents, we will stay once again in a simple hotel. During a stopover in Telavi, the capital of the Georgian province of Kakheti, we bought food for the ten stages of the trek.

In Telawi, der Hauptstadt der georgischen Provinz Kachetien, decken wir uns auf einem Bauernmarkt mit frischen Lebensmitteln ein / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Telavi, the capital of the Georgian province of Kakheti, we stock up on fresh food at a farmers’ market / © Photo: Georg Berg

We have left the heat of Tbilisi behind in the mountains, but throughout the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the effects of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine are unmistakable. I strike up a conversation with Anna and Vitali, who are also planning to set out on a hike the next day. The Russian couple has lived in Georgia for almost two years. With a sentimental look to the East, they wonder when the political conditions will allow them to return to their homeland.

Hinter dem Hotel Tusheti bei Omalo blickt ein Paar auf die Bergkette, hinter der sich ihre russische Heimat befindet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Behind the Tusheti Hotel near Omalo, a couple looks at the mountain range behind which their Russian homeland is located / © Photo: Georg Berg

More outdoor is not possible

Our hike begins in one of the last villages in Tusheti that is inhabited year-round. Only in the three summer months from July to September the semi-nomadic Tuschen live here. During the rest of the year, the families live in the lower-lying Alvani Valley, which was given to them in the 16th century by King Theimuraz of Kakheti in gratitude for their support in the fight against the Persian invaders.

Omalo ist das tuschetische Verwaltungszentrum. Oberhalb der Ortschaft die restaurierten Ruinen des Wehrdorfes Keselo / © Foto: Georg Berg
Omalo is the Tusheti administrative center. Above the village the restored ruins of the fortified village of Keselo / © Photo: Georg Berg

With light luggage we enjoy the nature and suspect that the route ahead of us was the scene of hostile conflicts for centuries. Almost 120 kilometers lie ahead of us, during which we have to overcome more than 5,000 meters of altitude. We are moving along the southern side of the mountain ridge that separates Georgia from Chechnya, often only a few hundred meters from the border.

Im tuschetischen Bergdorf Tsokalta ist im Winter nur ein Haus bewohnt / © Foto: Georg Berg
In the Chechen mountain village of Tsokalta, only one house is inhabited in winter / © Photo: Georg Berg
Hinter dem tuschetischen Wehrdorf Dartlo erkennt man wenige Kilometer vor der tchetschenischen Grenze die Burg Kvavlo / © Foto: Georg Berg
Behind the Chechen fortified village of Dartlo, the castle of Kvavlo can be seen a few kilometers from the Chechen border / © Photo: Georg Berg

Border experiences

The border with Chechnya runs over rugged mountain ridges and has not been further secured on the Georgian side to this day. For the corridor, which is particularly close to the border, all persons need a letter of permission, which is issued at the border police posts and checked on the way. Tourists must have their passports with them for this purpose.

Das georgische Grenzgebiet entlang der Grenze nach Tschetschenien darf man nur mit einem Erlaubnisschreiben betreten, das man an den Kontrollpunkten erhält / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Georgian border area along the border with Chechnya can be entered only with a letter of permission, which is issued at the checkpoints / © Photo: Georg Berg

Since time immemorial, the borders between Tusheti, Chechnya and Dagestan have been a challenge. The Tusks were threatened primarily by human abduction. The row of old fortified towers, which stand within sight of each other and used to be constantly manned, cannot be overlooked. This meant that news of enemy attacks could be passed on quickly and the remote settlements could at least be defended together. As a deterrent, defeated enemies were buried in highly visible graves along the border. Since the Tusks believed in reincarnation, the right arms of killed enemies were chopped off as a precaution, and these decorated many Tusk house walls as trophies.

Wehrtürme wie hier am Nakaicho Pass markieren seit alters her die nördliche Grenze Georgiens / © Foto: Georg Berg
Fortified towers like this one at Nakaicho Pass have marked Georgia’s northern border since time immemorial / © Photo: Georg Berg

The culture of the Tusk people is characterized by pre-Christian traditions

In the remote region of Georgia, the ethnic group of the Tushes is still entrenched in a faith in which pagan ideas play a major role alongside Christian rituals. For example, most Tusks are firmly convinced that all products that come from pigs bring bad luck in the mountains. Even a hitchhiker with leather shoes or a salami in his backpack can cause a car accident. However, in the Georgian lowlands, where the Tusks spend most of the year, they themselves regularly consume pork

Zwei Tuschen an einem Chati. Solch traditionelle Heiligtümer sind sehr häufig in Tuschetien / © Foto: Georg Berg
Two Tusks at a Chati. Such traditional shrines are very common in Tusheti / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Dartlo-Kirche am Rande der Stadt Dartlo, in der Gemeinde Akhmeta. Für die Dorfbevölkerung ist der Bereich sowohl wegen der Kirche als auch wegen eines Schreins heilig / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Dartlo church on the outskirts of the town of Dartlo, in the municipality of Akhmeta. For the villagers, the area is sacred both because of the church and because of a shrine / © Photo: Georg Berg
In Georgien haben die Kinder drei Monate Sommerferien. Diese Zeit verbringen die Familien der Tuschen meist in den Gebirgsdörfern Tuschetiens / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Georgia, children have three months of summer vacation. This time is usually spent by the families of the Tusks in the mountain villages of Tusheti / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Caucasian chalk circle

Near Dartlo, where horses were grazing a moment ago, our guide Giorgi shows us a stone circle that inevitably reminds me of Bertholt Brecht’s drama of the Caucasian Chalk Circle. Here in Dartlo, the twelve village elders gathered when necessary to judge crimes such as murder, theft, or treason. In the center of the circle, the accuser and the accused knelt on two stones. Under another stone, both had to take off their shaved mustaches as a sign of the oath. A man’s mustache symbolizes his conscience. The highest punishment was banishment from the village community.

Steinkreis, in dem früher Gericht gehalten wurde. Dieser so genannte Sabcheo ist ein traditioneller Gerichtsplatz in Tuschetien aus dem 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, an dem sich die Dorfältesten trafen und berieten. Einer der am besten erhaltenen Gerichtsplätze befindet sich in Dartlo / © Foto: Georg Berg
Stone circle where court was held in the past. This so-called sabcheo is a traditional court place in Tusheti from the 16th and 17th centuries, where village elders met and deliberated. One of the best preserved court squares is located in Dartlo / © Photo: Georg Berg

Dogs, sheep, wolves

Tusheti is known for its high-quality sheep products (milk, cheese, wool). The flocks of sheep are tended by shepherds, led by goats and guarded by dogs. Even before you see a flock of sheep, you can hear the barking of sheepdogs. For hikers then increased caution is required, because the dogs take their task very seriously. Running away at this moment is not necessary and rather clumsy. If the flock of sheep is still in front of you, it is better to wait and have a picnic. Because a flock of sheep is always on the move and sooner or later will clear the way.

Die Begegnung mit Hunden ist für Wanderer in Georgien oft mit erhöhtem Puls verbunden, denn die kaukasischen Hirtenhunde verteidigen ihre Herde äußerst aggressiv auch gegen Wölfe / © Foto: Georg Berg
The encounter with dogs is often associated with increased pulse for hikers in Georgia, because the Caucasian shepherd dogs defend their flock extremely aggressively even against wolves / © Photo: Georg Berg
In Tuschetien werden Schafherden von Ziegen geführt und von Hunden bewacht. Auch auf der anderen Seite eines Flusses können Wölfe eine Gefahr darstellen / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Tusheti, flocks of sheep are led by goats and guarded by dogs. Even on the other side of a river wolves can be a danger / © Photo: Georg Berg
Nur die Hirten können ihre Hunde wieder beruhigen. Dieser Schäfer krault einen Hund, den er in kalten Nächten als Kopfkissen verwendet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Only shepherds can calm their dogs again. This shepherd cuddles a dog he uses as a pillow on cold nights / © Photo: Georg Berg

Pack horses and bridges in rough terrain

The higher and steeper a mountain range is, the narrower the trails become. Heavy loads can only be transported over trails with sure-footed animals such as horses, mules and donkeys. Tents, personal luggage, provisions and kitchen utensils for our hiking group of four were transported by six pack horses on the stages over 2,000 meters in altitude. They were loaded and led by experienced packhorses. This is the name given to people who transport loads over mountains on the backs of packhorses.

Bei der Überquerung von Flüssen ist Trittsicherheit gefragt. Für Wanderer  mit Tagesrucksack ... / © Foto: Georg Berg
Surefootedness is required when crossing rivers. For hikers with daypacks … / © Photo: Georg Berg
... aber auch der Packpferde, die das Gepäck durch den Fluss transportieren / © Foto: Georg Berg
… but also the packhorses that transport the luggage across the river / © Photo: Georg Berg
Erfahrene Säumer beherrschen das Beladen von Packpferden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Experienced muleteers master the loading of packhorses / © Photo: Georg Berg
Etwa viermal im Jahr werden die Packpferde unterwegs mit neuen Hufeisen beschlagen / © Foto: Georg Berg
About four times a year, the packhorses are shod with new horseshoes along the way / © Photo: Georg Berg
Je nach Zustand des Wanderweges und Tiefe des Wassers im Fluss, entscheidet der Wanderführer, an welcher Stelle der kalte Fluss durchquert wird / © Foto: Georg Berg
Giorgi tests the current and the ground in the river. Depending on the condition of the trail and the depth of the water, the trail guide decides at which point the group can cross the cold river / © Photo: Georg Berg
Manch eine Brücke macht nicht den zuverlässigsten Eindruck, lässt dem Wanderer aber keine Wahl / © Foto: Georg Berg
Some bridges do not make the most reliable impression, but leave the hiker no choice / © Photo: Georg Berg
Brücke, die man nicht braucht. Sie führt über ein Fussbett. An der Vegetation erkennt man aber, dass der Fluss im Sommer noch nie Wasser geführt hat / © Foto: Georg Berg
Bridge you don’t need. It leads over a footbed. But you can see from the vegetation that the river has never had water in summer / © Photo: Georg Berg

So close to the sky

The next highlights of the hike have to do with steep climbs. The first one leads us over the Atsunta Pass, which connects the Georgian provinces of Tusheti and Kevsuretia. On the sweaty serpentine path over scree fields we meet some mountain bikers. Around noon we can enjoy the view in the cold at an altitude of 3,403 meters.

Blick vom 3.496 Meter hohen Atsunta-Pass in die georgische Provinz Tuschetien / © Foto: Georg Berg
View from the 3,496-meter-high Atsunta Pass into the Georgian province of Tusheti / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Vegtation auf dem Atsunta-Pass in Georgien erblüht 3.400 Meter über dem Meeresspiegel nur wenige Wochen im Jahr. Meistens liegt hier Schnee / © Foto: Georg Berg
The vegtation on the Atsunta Pass in Georgia blossoms 3,400 meters above sea level only a few weeks a year. Most of the time there is snow here / © Photo: Georg Berg
Auf der Khevsureti-Seite unterhalb des Atsunta-Pass in Georgien. Im Sonnenuntergang sieht man weit hinter der Gebirgskette den Berg Kasbek / © Foto: Georg Berg
On the Khevsureti side below the Atsunta Pass in Georgia. In the sunset you can see Mount Kazbek far behind the mountain range / © Photo: Georg Berg
Während der klaren Nacht in 3.000 Meter Höhe kann man am Himmel die Milchstraße und viele Sternschnuppen beobachten / © Foto: Georg Berg
During the clear night at 3,000 meters above sea level, the Milky Way and many shooting stars can be seen in the sky / © Photo: Georg Berg
Frühstück in 3.000 Meter Höhe über dem Meeresspiegel auf der Khevsureti-Seite unterhalb des Atsunta-Passes / © Foto: Georg Berg
Breakfast at 3,000 meters above sea level on the Khevsureti side below the Atsunta pass / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Stadt Schatili liegt in einer strategisch wichtigen Lage in der historischen georgischen Provinz Chewsuretien. Sie ist oft belagert aber nie besiegt worden. Im Jahr 2023 wehen die georgische und die Europafahne an einem Mast / © Foto: Georg Berg
The town of Shatili is strategically located in the historic Georgian province of Khevsureti. It has often been besieged but never defeated. In 2023, the Georgian and European flags will fly on a pole / © Photo: Georg Berg
Georgische Dolomiten wird das Gebirgsmassiv auch genannt, das man bei gutem Wetter vom Tschauchi-Pass aus sehen kann / © Foto: Georg Berg
Georgian Dolomites is the name of the mountain massif that can be seen from the Chauchi Pass in good weather / © Photo: Georg Berg
Giorgi Chachua von Enjoy-Georgia zeigt als Wanderführer wo der Atsunta-Pass die georgischen Provinzen Tuschetien und Khevsureti verbindet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Giorgi Chachua from Enjoy-Georgia shows as a hiking guide where the Atsunta Pass connects the Georgian provinces of Tusheti and Khevsureti / © Photo: Georg Berg

For two weeks we entrusted ourselves to Giorgi, who infected us with enthusiasm for his home country from the first minute. He is a trained tour guide and co-owner of the Georgian travel agency Enjoy Georgia. Contrary to what the name suggests, many customers from German-speaking countries book here. The staff is flexible and communication is uncomplicated. Since we did not have to take care of luggage transport, catering and itinerary ourselves, we could fully engage in the interesting information of the hiking guide.

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