Tacross the Greater Caucasus, which forms the northern belt of Georgia, the narrow road of the Abano Pass cuts a treacherous path. In fact, the term “street” is a bit generous; for 45 miles this dirt road, cut from the edge of the mountainside, swells and contracts as it meanders up to a height of 2,000 meters. The steep slope along the roadside claims multiple lives every year, and his reputation was cemented when he starred in the 2013 BBC World’s Most Dangerous Road documentary These Mountains. At the end of the pass, the mountains give way to a grassy plateau when Omalo, Tusheti’s largest village and administrative center, comes into view.

A group of wild horses on the way to Omalo

From June to September Georgians travel from their homes in Kakheti on this road to escape the heat of the lowlands and spend the season in family houses in the 49 villages of Tusheti. For the rest of the year, the Abano Pass is covered in snow, with temperatures dropping to -30 ° C, separating Tusheti from the rest of the country.

The recent boom in tourism in Georgia has boosted the small and slowly growing economy, filling a void for places like Tusheti left by the shrinking pastoral tradition that has been the core of Indian ink culture for centuries. For hikers and the adventurous, their journey begins with braving the trail to enjoy the hiking and wild beauty of Tusheti and staying overnight in traditional wooden houses in Omalo or camping in the mountains.

An abandoned house in Lower OmaloA safe in an abandoned house in the center of the village of Omalo

“When I was little, the houses in Omalo weren’t as big as they are today,” says the 27-year-old medical student Keti Tauberidze from Tbilisi, pointing to the few wooden houses nearby that share this slope. Born in Akhmeta, an administrative town in the lowlands near the Abano Pass, Tauberidze has been coming here every summer since she was a child.

“My grandfather was born here and built this house,” she says. “I think it’s fun when tourists come here; I like the opportunity to speak to foreigners and their presence gives us jobs. Well, personally not “, she smiles,” but others do. Our nature here is wild and untouched, and I don’t want that to change. ”Her house is simple and sparingly furnished, including a narrow, carved wooden bed that was built by Tauberidze’s great-grandmother.

A view from Nino Kitidze's living room window.  Omalo, Tusheti.  08/21/2021.Nino Kitidze, a 28-year-old housewife and mother of three, poses for a portrait in her family home in Omalo, Tusheti.  August 21, 2021.

Above us, the sun dries colorful children’s clothes hanging on a long clothesline on the balcony. Keti smiles and apologizes: “We haven’t had water for two days and suddenly it worked again, so we had to wash a lot!” The three small children who play on the balcony next to us belong to their cousin Nino Kitidze, whose father-in-law Keti’s grandfather was.

“I am now busy with my children, but I want to build and run my own guest house here,” says Nino. Living in Akhmeta for the other months of the year, Nino started working as a babysitter and saleswoman at the age of 18 and now sees the tourism boom as an opportunity to do something different.

Leila Chabukaidze, on her veranda

It is easier for young people like Keti and Nino to accept Tusheti’s changing identity from a pastoral community to a natural tourist attraction. For older generations of Tusheti, the loss of cultural heritage from such change is more tangible. “It’s not that I think tourism is bad,” says Nata Abashidze. She turned 50 this year and recently switched jobs from dentist to school teacher after her eyesight deteriorated. She also owns an Akhmeta guest house and says, “I don’t like tourists coming, but I don’t offer more than the money they pay. When someone comes here, they have to help, share, live with us. It’s just money, money, money that they think about. I do not like it.”

Nata Abashidze and her family sit next to a fire in their garden in the early evening

The transactional nature of tourism appears to contradict the hospitality for which Georgia is famous. Open hospitality, where a stranger in your home or village is treated with a welcome and generosity that lasts beyond their stay, is an inviolable part of Georgian culture. The gains of tourism from new jobs and economic growth are therefore linked to the knowledge that part of their cultural heritage is being lost.

The transactional nature of tourism contradicts the hospitality for which Georgia is famous

“My father was a shepherd here from the village of Tsotava,” says Nata. “When he was 39 years old, he fell off his horse and died, leaving five of us children behind. My mother raised us alone. ”This wooden house with a deep veranda that leads to two rooms belongs to Nata’s husband and was built by his father.

Late afternoon view, Upper OmaloTwo men are playing basketball near the entrance road to Upper OmaloMaria Gochitashvili, on vacation, takes turns riding with her parents in Upper Omalo

  • Two men play basketball near the road to Upper Omalo. Maria Gochitashvili rides a horse in Upper Omalo while on vacation.

Omalo himself is split in half; Where Upper Omalo focuses on a smaller building envelope beneath centuries-old stone towers that line the slope, Lower Omalo is newer, with dozens of houses dotted around the plateau. Many of them are still in use, either as summer houses or boarding houses. Others are abandoned or used as farms for cows and horses in the summer months before the hike to the plains before winter.

Since the 16th century, shepherds have been moving their flocks from the Tusheti to the Kakheti Plain in autumn

Migration in Tusheti is both a product of tradition and a source of trauma. Since the 16th century, shepherds have drawn their flocks over 120 miles from the Tusheti Mountains to the Kakheti Plain in the fall, where they live until spring before sweeping their tracks and bringing their sheep back to the pristine summer pastures in the mountains.

But in the 1950s the Soviets instigated forced migration of all communities in Tusheti, relocating centuries-old families to the towns and villages of the lowlands and effectively forbidding their return. The break never completely healed; Even after Georgia’s then leader Eduard Shevardnadze allowed families to return to their ancestral home in the 1980s, few withdrew completely. The relative warmth and comfort of the lowlands compared to the harsh conditions of the mountains means that today all but a handful of people are leaving Tusheti for the winter.

Children play in Lower Omalo, TushetiOmalo, Tusheti

Zura Mouravidze and his wife Maia have been coming to Tusheti for decades. Almost 60 years old, Zura’s relationship with his home in Omalo has evolved from a family inheritance to a livelihood. Tusheti, which grazes the Russian republic of Dagestan, remains an important border for Georgia to keep under surveillance against its Russian neighbor. Zura is one of them and comes every two weeks all year round by helicopter to relieve the other guards. “We spend two weeks here, then two weeks in the lowlands to rest,” he says. “It’s not that easy to be here in winter.”

Since we turned our house into a guest house, life has changed a lot and for the betterZura Mouravidze

“For me, Tusheti is Canada, the sea, New York, Washington, even Tel Aviv! Everything is there, ”he laughs excitedly. “Seriously, I love Tusheti so much.” Both Zura’s mother and father were born here. Until 15 years ago, Zura worked in the public prosecutor’s office in Telavi and Akhmeta. Ten years ago the Mouravidzen turned their house in Omalo into a guest house “for economic stability,” he says. “Tourism is doing us very well here. Looking back over the past 10 years, life has changed a lot, and for the better. Especially our infrastructure. “

There is a van owned by tourists on the outskirts of Lower Omalo.

Without a reason to keep returning to Omalo and Tusheti, the region risks being stripped of its citizens and heritage again. On the way back to Tbilisi our car rolls down the mountain and we pass so many gravestones with withered flowers and photos of those whose lives the pass demands that I stop counting. Almost every conversation with locals about the tourism-centric revival of Tusheti and Omalo leads to a single location: whether or not the Abano Pass will be converted into a more reliable, less treacherous route into the mountains, and if so, what could they do? win and what Tusheti could lose.

This report was produced with the assistance of the Georgia National Tourism Administration

Flock of sheep in Upper Omalo