Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. The air sticks to our skin. We meet Romain, a French expatriate previously encountered in his own restaurant. He tries to embark us once more into an evening of debauchery but we have to resist. Tomorrow we leave to Tusheti, a mountainous region of Georgia. We must not miss the only marshrutka of the day that can bring us to Kvemo Alvani.
The « most dangerous road in the world »
The driver doesn’t speak English. We don’t speak Georgian nor Russian. He speaks Spanish. Not us. We end up with the worst place at the back of the marshrutka. Throughout the journey, he accelerates, accelerates, then slams on the brakes. Arrived at Kvemo Alvani, we continue in a Jeep to Omalo, the starting point of the trek.
The driver is a stocky man with a curved nose and huge hands. They look as if they had been sculpted by the roads of these mountains. In spite of his gruff profile he is considerate and lets us take our time to buy provisions and enjoy a coffee in a wooden hut in the middle of the woods. After this short break, we are going to attack the « most dangerous road in the world » — an approximate description that forgets to mention that the frequent accidents are correlated to the blood alcohol level of the drivers that lost their life on this road. This didn’t prevent our Polish co-drivers from having a bottle of wine for the first couple and a 2.5L bottle of beer for the other. Na zdrowie!
A very (very) noisy paradise
We spend the first night in a guesthouse in Lower Omalo, less touristic than the « Upper » part of the village. With its big rock covered with moss, we fell like in the middle of the nativity scene under the natural wall of the dining room. Upstairs, a wooden terrace offers us a view on an immensity of forested hills and fields forming shades of green in which the twilight mist comes to curl. The evening ends after a few beers and a delicious meal — two words that go together in Georgia.
2:30 AM: wake up with a start. We had fallen asleep to the soft melody of a family conflict upstairs and things moved up a gear. People are yelling, fists are knocked on the table… Our hosts had to call the police. In the morning chaos still reigns in the guesthouse so I go out for a walk into this bucolic landscape for a breath fresh air and calm. Chickens follow me believing that I am going to feed them, horses graze peacefully and the fog that draped the forest disappears.
We cross Upper Omalo at lightning speed surrounded by the noise of electric saws. This village gives me the impression of an amusement park crossed with an eco-museum even if it seems pleasant to finish a trek. We continue on a track, tomb for amphibians and other butterflies attracted by the puddles. After a boring walk a small village of stones and wood on top of a hill with a chapel reveals: Shenako.
Shenako: A large bowl of fresh air
A small, round and jovial woman approaches us. It is Daro, our host. Owning several properties, she likes to call herself an « oligarch » with her broken English rounded by the Georgian accent, and whose sentences are punctuated by a sincere and generous laugh. She takes us on a tour of her vegetable garden and shows us family artifacts from another time: her grandmother’s cradle, a bag in which they used to prepare cheese…
The village sparkles with life. Kids are running in the muddy streets, teenagers play smart-asses on horses and the laughter of the adults reflects against the stone walls. The heat accumulated during the day makes the sky collapse in a thunderclap that would make a Gaul shudder. A wave of fresh air enters the dining room, people head back home and the village dozes off lulled by the clatter of rain.
Of heat and greenery
The heat compounds with humidity. We walk through forests of conifers and cross clearings, mazes of flowers as varied as the insects that feed on them and whose buzzing becomes the soundtrack of the day. We spend the following night in Diklo, a village dominated by the ruins of a castle from which we can contemplate an infinite number of mountains covered with forests we imagine teeming with life.
A land of shepherds
The slope is steep. Céline, my partner, finds herself face to face with a herd. I barely have time to yell at her to get away from it when two dogs rush towards her bare fangs and barking while a third one is heading towards me.
Please note: the dogs encountered near the herds in Georgia are Caucasian shepherds. With their average weight of 60 to 70 kg they are closer to bears than to poodles. The shepherds cut off their ears and tails (under anesthesia) so that they are less vulnerable to wolf attacks, which gives them a not-at-all-cuddly appearance.
She instinctively freezes and shows her « fangs » too. The two dogs stop dead in their tracks facing her. A shepherd whistles, the dogs leave as if nothing had happened. He is a gruff man with a face tanned by life in the open air and a hoarse, almost broken voice. He asks us where we are going and shows us the way before whistling again to regroup his herd and go to the pastures.
The eternal beginners
Crushed by the heat, we dream of taking a dip in the raging river we just crossed. But it is without taking into account this strong limbed man, dick and balls out, already enjoying the place. We will pass our turn for this time.
A lunch followed by a short nap and we continue our way through the hills with a plunging view on the valley. On the horizon blue parasols can be seen, could it be a café? At the entrance of the village a herd of cows is cooling down along the stream but when there is a herd, there are dogs. Obviously they have no intention to let us pass. Our arrival excites them so much that they attack the cows out of frustration so we cut through the bushes to avoid confrontation. The village is partly in ruins and of course there is no café. I ask a grandmother where I can fill my canteen, she shows me the river. In a region with so many herds, I’m not really willing to fill it here for fear of catching diarrhea…
We have now been walking for eight hours but our approximate plan shows us a river that we can’t find. We sink into bushes, our bags get caught on branches, the path disappears, reappears then disappears again… Let’s face it, we are lost! We should have done like everybody else and followed the track. On the way back, I ask a local guy in a makeshift hut the way to Dartlo. He makes big signs but we don’t understand each other. We have no other choice than to cut short by facing the slope downwards in order to reach the road below. It will not be comfortable but we should be able cross the path that way. Arrived at a dried river, the it seems to have collapsed. Too dangerous to cross, we have to continue the horrible descent until we end up on the right path, finally. The sun hides behind the mountain and the valley gets swallowed shadows. Céline wriggles in all directions and undresses herself: a fir needle had slipped into her butt. Nothing better than a good laugh to work up courage!
Although it has been recently renovated, seeing the village of Dartlo feels like coming back to the Middle Ages. The houses with their slate roofs and stone walls seem to have fallen from the mountain along the stream that runs through it. There, we stumble upon familiar faces sitting at the café, drinking beers — they haven’t lost their way like the morons we are. We are given a seat to savor the divine hops, reviving our spirits, but we won’t end the evening drown in cha-cha, the local brandy, unlike some… we’ll rather choose the big sleep.
The eternal beginners return
The point of mistakes is to learn from them. But for us, the eternal beginners, it’s kind of the opposite. We seem to enjoy making mistakes and repeat them over and over again. So here we are again, lost, having once again tried to avoid following the track, this simple but so boring route! I will spare you the stories of dogs showing their fangs, of disappearing paths, etc. It’d become tiresome. At every turn or climb we cross our fingers not to be attacked. The pockets of my cargo pants are filled with stones collected on the way to protect ourselves from these monsters of another age. It’s the only effective way I’ve found to keep them at bay when the shepherd isn’t around — which is almost always.
Anyway, where was I… Oh yes! Again struggling to find our way. Below, a group of people in a scree seems to be in trouble too. The only way to be heard at such a distance is to shout. I hate to do that in the mountains, but still: « HEEEEYYYY! IS IT THE RIGHT PATH? » For once, it seems so!
We meet them a bit later as they try to get around a herd of sheep. In retrospect this scene still makes me laugh. From the herd, a huge dog comes running out heading straight for one of the guys in the group. Panic-stricken, encumbered with his big bag, he starts to run too, which makes the dog even crazier. It looks like a scene from a cartoon. Seeing such schmucks*, one thought comes to mind: we have to meet them, we’ll feel less lonely. Evelyne, Sander and Wilhem, if you read me… 😉
* Translated from « couillon » which in French is an affectionate term for idiot, daft
The famous « bridge »
Dark towers seem to watch our arrival. The sun is low and the clouds create a dramatic atmosphere. If it wasn’t for the track we could have imagined a garrison on horseback coming to meet us, asking for our intentions.
In Pharsma, the state of the famous bridge we will probably have to cross is even worse than we thought. The last flood did not spare it: the metal beams at its base have been twisted and torn off in some places and the logs on which we are supposed to walk are sometimes perpendicular when they did not disappear. The villagers are unanimous: there is no other way to cross the river. One of them comes to show us how. It’s scary but seems doable — at least without the bags.
The sun has set. We ask the first person we meet where we could spend the night. She yells what seems to be a first name followed by a sentence containing the word « tourist ». She takes us through the muddy streets to an old wooden house whose walls are covered in peeling paint. A small lady looking like a Gypsy welcomes us with a big smile accompanied by her daughter carrying a baby who will help us translate. In the house, each step makes the floor creak. It is not a guesthouse but their own house. The room we are offered is also theirs. They setup clean sheets with the smell of mothballs, the old pieces of furniture have been patinated by several generations and the iron beds that creak make us travel in time. The meal is like the place, simple. Bread, vegetables and cheese. But served with such a genuine smile, it becomes a luxury. The rest of the evening will be spent telling each other stories of rotten meat and hikers struck by lightning.
0:30 AM: A dog barks, followed by another, until all the dogs of the village have agreed to start their day and fuck our night. Their barking spreads like waves. One dog starts, one of its colleagues follows, then another… until they all get tired except one. The single dog will then continue until it gets bored. Then follows calm before the next wave. Being unable to sleep I think about the thousand possible ways to die by crossing the bridge or being bit by the dogs that will be waiting for us on the other side — because yes, there is a herd. 😭
4:00 AM: The kids in the next room are awake and giggling. Fucking brats. I have no choice but to put in earplugs if I want to get some sleep.
We gulp down a small breakfast and are about to leave when a Caucasian mountain of muscles with a thick black beard comes to advise us about the dogs: « you have to scare them with sticks and shout loudly » he says with a deep voice. A last souvenir photo with our hosts — the lady who welcomed us regrets not to have dressed better for this moment — and we greet each other warmly before walking towards the bridge.
The man who advised us yesterday for the crossing is here. He seems worried and will stay with his baby in his arms as long as we have not reached the other side. The first two-thirds are easy. The logs on which to put your feet are not too lean. You just have to hold on to the cables. On the last third though… 😱. I bend down so that the bag doesn’t get caught on the cable overhead then put my foot on an unstable log placed on a twisted end of the beam. Short of breath, deep-focused, I stretch both arms in the air to hold on to the cable — a psychological safety. I avoid looking at the river under my feet. If I slip I know I won’t have the strength to support my body and my backpack — no mistake allowed. A few more steps and I reach a stable part of the bridge. That’s it! Céline being smaller cannot hold on to this cable, so she developed another technique: crossing on all fours.
The ultimate battle
As soon as Sander and Wilhem have started walking on the path the dogs, several dozen meters away, run towards us. In a moment of panic, they also start to run. The dogs get frantic. Céline raises her stick and shouts. They continue barking but hold still. We also scream like crazies. The battle is raging and it seems that we are taking a slight advantage. Positioned as a Roman turtle we move forward shouting, sticks in the air, protecting each other — the villagers must have laughed at our technique. The dogs retreat as we gain confidence. Puffed up with pride we decide not to go around the herd but through it. It is not easy to stay grouped. To give time to those behind I throw rocks to the dogs. They are stupid enough to try to catch them but above all it discourages them from approaching.
The confrontation ends once the herd crossed. Céline takes a different path but the dogs, frustrated by their defeat, do not miss such an opportunity for revenge. She stands and fights alone like a samurai. We run towards them screaming, again, sticks in the air. The watchdogs retreat one last time, tail between the legs, and continue to bark in frustration. I almost feel sorry for them as they contemplate their defeat.
The Nakhle-Kholi pass
There follows a peaceful 940 m ascent sheltered from the sun under a mass of clouds pierced by the most valiant rays. Under this adornment of light the green and rounded mass of Tusheti mountains is the most beautiful. On the other side one can see Chechnya and Dagestan, names that make us dream but represent nothing more than lines on a map. In less than 3 hours we reach the pass of Nakhle-Kholi. Celine arrives first, followed by Evelyne — men nowadays are not what they used to be 😝. We enjoy a bottle of amber wine to celebrate.
The descent to the other is smooth on a grass and flower bed to the village of Verkhovani where we’ll spend the night. In Georgia, a meal is composed of several dishes spread on the table where everyone helps himself. It is usually impossible for a « normal » eater to finish such a meal but tonight we will finish every single plate. Two cha-chas later — for digestion — everyone goes to bed.
A beer, another beer and food…
The next day seems to be the Day of Laziness. We leave at 10:30 AM to ford a shallow river with little current. On the other side horses are chasing and catching each other by the mane. Although today’s route is on a track it is rather pleasant. Few cars, no tourists. It seems that this valley is ignored by foreigners. We walk through the woods, stop for a beer, then for another one, then for a meal… Any excuse is good to rest and chat. Our paths diverge when our Belgian friends decide to « go camping somewhere so we didn’t carry the tent for nothing ».
It is always hard to say goodbye after such strong moments spent together but it is part of the trip. Friendships are forged then broken in a short time, but so dense that it feels like it’s been compressed. We’ll maybe cross paths again, who knows?
After 10 hours of walking, drinking beers and eating, we arrive at the final point of this trek: Upper Omalo. As I had imagined at the beginning the comfort of the « tourist village » after this little walk is greatly enjoyed 😉