A 4WD adventure into the Caucasus mountains of Georgia

A 4WD adventure into the Caucasus mountains of Georgia
Tusheti National park, Georgia.

Enjoy houses made of slate, highland pastures with wild flowers and drivers who skimp on diesel.

When my wife and I backpacked with two friends in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia for almost two months recently, we made four trips into the Greater Caucasus mountains.

These stretch from the Black Sea near Sochi over some 1,200km all the way to the Caspian Sea. The watershed of this mountain range forms the boundary between Europe and Asia, with Russia to the north and Georgia and Azerbaijan to the south.

The region north of the range is known as Ciscaucasia and the region to the south is known as Transcaucasia. So the three countries covered in our trip are, contrary to popular belief, actually Asian countries.

No visit to Georgia or Azerbaijan is complete if it does not include a trip into the Greater Caucasus, just like no visit to Switzerland or Austria is complete without a trip into the Alps.

Of our four ventures into the Greater Caucasus, I regard the trip to the Tusheti region in north-east Georgia as the most enjoyable and rewarding. The weather was kind to us and we had ample time to soak up the beauty of nature.

There is only one road to Tusheti from the wine-producing eastern province of Kakheti, and it winds its way up river valleys over the nerve-wracking 2,900m high Abano Pass. This road is only passable to 4WD vehicles from about early June to early October.

Magnificent mountains

One early summer morning the four of us left Telavi, the main city of Kakheti province towards Omalo, the biggest among the mountain villages in Tusheti.

The driver was a 28-year-old handsome man by the name of Shota and, like the vast majority of the people we had met in Georgia, he did not speak a word of English.

The road was initially quite good. But once we entered the mountains about 20km north of Telavi, the road conditions deteriorated rapidly as we gradually gained altitude in the Stori River valley.

Shota handled his new 4WD very, very carefully, inching over every hump, depression and puddle.

We did not really complain, however, as we were so enchanted by the spectacular views on the way that we actually requested for photo stops several times, even though it was drizzling most of the way.

Throughout the journey, we counted not less than 50 waterfalls and were overtaken by only two vehicles.

After more than five hours on the road, we emerged from a deep canyon, negotiated a sharp bend round a sheer rock wall and, voila (!) a most charming patch of pasture surrounded by high mountains opened up in front of us.

Without hesitation, we decided to put up in Hotel Tusheti right beside the road.

The aptly-named hotel, strategically situated in front of woods some 1.5km before Kvemo Omalo, is the first to welcome every visitor to Tusheti. A twin room in the hotel including full board only cost us about RM95 a night!

After dropping us off at the hotel, Shota went back to his home village of Shenaqo, just a few kilometres northeast of Omalo. We had arranged with him to take us visiting Shenaqo and Diklo in the following morning.

All the villages in Tusheti are more than 2,000m above sea level.

After a late lunch and a good rest, we started walking to Kvemo Omalo at about 5pm. The sun was still quite high - summer days are long in high latitudes.

The weather had improved tremendously after we checked into the hotel and it was a very leisurely and pleasant walk, even though parts of the dirt road had become rather muddy due to repeated rutting by passing vehicles.

We were accompanied all the way by Gaby, a most friendly mongrel belonging to the hotel owner.

A few horses grazed lazily on the verdant pastures that rolled away in all directions until they were blocked by magnificent mountains, some of which were capped by glistening snow.

The hamlet of Kvemo Omalo came into view as soon as we mounted the first major crest in the road. The whole place was so quiet and peaceful that I wondered where all the people had gone.

Then I felt the late afternoon chill. There were a few home-stays and guesthouses, some abandoned buildings. Wild flowers formed large blotches of yellow and red and purple over the green carpet of grass.

A few children finally appeared to add some life to the sleepy hollow.

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