Half of my initial attraction to Georgia grew from the pictures of mountains I saw — the regions of Kazbegi, Svaneti, and Tusheti. When I booked my ticket here from Korea, my ambition was to hike for months, exploring all the back-country hiking routes I could find and chronicling the experience. But life has a funny way of messing up plans, and a broken leg quickly put the whole trip in jeopardy. The past year has been one of rehabilitation, pushing my body back into hiking shape in an effort to salvage my ambition. After my successful climb of Mount Aragats in Armenia last week, I felt as ready as I’ll ever be to try a ‘proper’ hike, so I went for it. Not only did I successfully complete a brutal five-day trek through the Tusheti region in a mere four days, it was also the longest, most intensive hike of my life!
Nowhere, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s Nowhere is another person’s Everywhere. The most unimaginably remote outpost is someone’s everyday world — and means the world to that person.Don George
It wasn’t pretty. It could be said I made some judgment errors and took some unnecessary risks. I blew through the latter section of the trek and didn’t fully explore some of the sights out of a desire to be finished with the whole thing, and I’m still recovering physically. But I finished it, and I feel great about that! So here it is, my full account of trekking from Shatili to Omalo in Georgia’s Khevsureti and Tusheti regions.
Getting to Shatili
To save money on transport, I decided to do the route in reverse, even though doing so meant significantly more elevation gain throughout the hike.
- Marshrutkas to Shatili leave the Tbilisi Navtlughi Station Tuesdays and Fridays around 9 am, and from Didube Bus Station on Saturdays.
- If you can, have a Georgian friend contact the dispatch the day before to verify the departure and reserve you a spot (thanks, Nino!).
- The fare is 20 GEL.
The road to Shatili was long and winding, a gravel road up into the very north of the country. There weren’t many other people sharing the car with me, so we were all able to stretch out and make ourselves comfortable. We even shared a lunch part way through, making the entire experience one of the most pleasant marshrutka rides I’ve ever been on. The view didn’t suck, either.
Shatili (შატილი) is a medieval village with some 60-odd towers made of stacked stones from the surrounding mountains. Today, it is home to just over 20 locals, plus however many tourists are staying in one of several towers repurposed as guesthouses. I stayed at the Chincharauli family’s guesthouse and paid 60 GEL for full room and board (dinner and breakfast). I highly recommend choosing full board, as the meals are MASSIVE and absolutely delicious.
- Contact Shorena at +995 598370317 to arrange your stay. She may not pick up; instead her daughter Miriam may return your call.
Day One: Shatili to Khidotani Ridge
I set off early the next day after breakfast, following the road along the river to something labeled ‘Anatori’ on my GPS tracks. I knew it was some sort of tomb but didn’t know anything beyond that. What at first appeared to be small stone longhouses held a much darker secret.
Peering through the small openings in each revealed piles of human remains. Each structure contains at least several bodies, and the bones are scattered about and mixed. Apparently, the people interred here had fallen victim to the Plague and came to this hilltop to die.
I didn’t linger long with the sleeping dead, as I had nearly 20 km to cover that day with nearly 1,500 meters of elevation gain. Nothing to slouch at!
The road passed several small villages along the way, with small mountains rising craggy and wild on either side. The river was a constant companion, opaque with sediment from the surrounding hills and waning in strength as I made my way further towards its source.
The last point of interest for the day was Mutso (მუცო) Village, with a conveniently located cafe at its base. I stopped for a quick snack of khachapuri and ditched my bag before climbing up to the abandoned settlement. With over 30 fortified dwellings, several guard towers, and more open crypts, the place almost felt like a ruined version of The Eyrie from Game of Thrones.
Halfway down the mountain after exploring the fort, I was caught by a thunderstorm and took shelter in one of the structures. A brief lull allowed me to descend to the cafe, where I had a beer and waited for the rest of it to blow over. By the time I continued, almost no trace of the storm remained, and I was able to look back and see Mutso perched on the hilltop behind me. Just epic.
Over the next couple hours, I encountered two pairs of border guards, who asked my hiking plans and radioed ahead to make sure it was acceptable for me to continue. We established that I would get my trekking paperwork at the border station at the end of the day, and I was given permission to proceed.
But the Caucasian weather gods, as fickle as ever, saw fit to gift me with yet another thunderstorm, and I had no option but to crouch in a small hollow beneath some rocks to take shelter from the downpour. It was a miserable 20 minutes, being cold and wet and becoming increasingly worried that I wouldn’t make it to the campsite before nightfall. I’d lingered in Mutso too long, and time was running out.
The steep, muddy climb out of the canyon did nothing to lift my spirits, and I was soon exhausted. I hadn’t realized that the 1,500 meters of elevation gain on the first day were all at once! But when I saw a Georgian flag flapping just over the next rise, I knew I’d made it.
The guards greeted me, took my passport, and set about issuing my trekking permit. It took longer than I expected, upwards of 20 minutes, but there were no issues. I got my paperwork and waved goodbye, carrying on up the hillside towards the ridge.
By the time I found a suitable campsite and had set up, I had maybe 30 minutes until sunset. It had been a long, exhausting day, but I was done — at least until morning. I had my paperwork, and I was on the right path. All in all, nothing had gone seriously wrong, and I was tentatively positive about my chances of crossing Atsunta Pass the next day.
But first, sleep…
Day Two: Khidotani Ridge to Kvakhidi Meadows
I woke up with the sunrise and ate a quick breakfast of churchkhela and muesli before packing my gear and setting out. It was already overcast, and I was worried about another storm later, so I didn’t want to linger too long. Still, the clouds were high and allowed stunning views of the surrounding mountains as I made my way along the ridge and then the hillside towards the pass.
The cloud cover grew heavier as I neared the pass, though I still couldn’t make it out of the imposing ring of peaks I seemed to be heading towards. Please let there be a path I’m not seeing, I thought, hoping against all odds that the route would be easier than I was beginning to suspect…
…but the thing about hoping against hope is that it’s hopeless — especially when Mother Nature is involved. The route went exactly where I suspected it might, and I found myself switchbacking up a black shale slope towards a small cleft in the ridgeline above. The peaks on either side were still crusted with old snow and ice. Whoo boy…
The climb up to the pass took ages, as I had to go frustratingly slowly to compensate for the steady elevation gain. The pass tops out just over 3,400 meters above sea level, and I have never done very well with anything over 3,000 meters.
The weather finally began to turn, and as the first drops of frigid rain began to fall, I knew my window had closed. Luckily, the rain was sparse, but visibility plummeted until I could only see the pass occasionally as the sky ahead of me cleared.
To make matters worse, a field of frozen snow covered the trail just shy of the pass, and the heavy rains the day before had made the black shale slope beyond it unstable and treacherous. Not ready to turn back, I set off across the snowfield, using my hiking poles to punch hand and footholds into the packed snow. I slipped several times, catching myself with one hand and my poles, gashing my finger on some shale in the process. As I crawled and battled my way across the rest of the field, I left a pretty trail of blood behind me.
If anything, the shale beyond the snow was worse, as taking one step would set a whole section of the rock to sliding down the hill. I used my poles again, stabbing them deep into the softened ground to use as anchors as I traversed the rest of the hillside and climbed back up to the trail. By the time I made it back onto the packed rock of the trail, I was emotionally and physically spent. It felt like I’d been on the verge of tumbling head over heels down the mountainside for hours, though the whole ordeal had lasted maybe twenty minutes.
When I made the pass a minute or two later, I didn’t linger long. The view was totally obstructed by fog, and I just wanted to get off the bloody mountain. I found the route down and followed it, gingerly making my way across another field of snow much less intimidating than the previous and dropping below the clouds.
The trail descended quickly, switchbacking along the shale slope towards the valley below. I didn’t take any shortcuts, sticking to the safety of the trail and hoping that the downhill slog wouldn’t mess up my knee too badly.
That caution served me well, and I made it down with no problems. But the trials of the day weren’t finished, and there were several points where the riverside trail disappeared beneath the packed ice still covering sections of it. I had to cross over the ice at a few points and rely on my GPS treks to find the trail again. This made for a few unnecessary detours (including one resulting in me blowing out the crotch of my only pair of pants. Yay for ventilation!) and one unpleasant encounter with a pair of sheepdogs before I finally made it to Kvakhidi Meadows.
Bone-weary and thankful to be alive, I set up camp for the night and feverishly hoped that the next day would be a little less exciting.
Day Three: Kvakhidi Meadows to Dartlo
I woke up with the sun again, still feeling exhausted from the gauntlet I’d been through the previous day. Three more days, three more days… was the refrain marching through my head as I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and set to breaking camp. I had a thought then: perhaps I could bang out the rest of the hike in a single day and get the whole thing over with…
After replenishing my water from a glacial stream across the river, I set out, tentatively planning on making the day a massive one. At least the weather was stunning!
The trail followed the river all day, mercifully staying on one side and only requiring a few meters of wading through the shallows at one point. Just as the river had waned as I approached the pass the previous two days, it swelled as I moved away, gathering meltwater from the surrounding mountains.
Signs of civilization gradually reappeared, and I began to see ruined towers on ridges and hilltops. A particularly memorable place was the ruins of Chontio Village — another medieval settlement now completely abandoned and crumbling. It’s amazing to see the construction of these buildings, without any sort of mortar or cement — merely stones stacked one on top of the other. Combine that with the precarious perches upon which they’ve been built, and the feat of their construction is impressive, to say the least.
As cool as all the ruins were to see, civilization means people, and people (at least in the wilds of the Caucasus) mean livestock. Livestock means dogs.
A pair of Israeli hikers headed in the opposite direction warned me of some aggressive sheepdogs ahead, so when I spotted the shepherd’s hut ahead with several furry hoodlums lounging outside, I stopped and waved to get the shepherd’s attention. One of the dogs had already begun barking, and the man shouted at his pack before waving me forward. The path was safe.
One dog broke into a run towards me, and the others leaped to join it, straight up ignoring the shepherd as he shouted ineffectually at them. That was his maximum effort though, leaving the fencepost he was leaning against seemed to be a Herculean feat he was incapable of.
I found myself surrounded by five sheepdogs, some normal-sized and others freakin’ massive. They didn’t just bark at me, they snarled and snapped and tried to flank me as I backed along the trail with hiking poles raised defensively. I shouted unintelligibly at them and swung my carbon-fiber poles when they got too close. Don’t show fear, don’t show fear…
One came at my back, and I whipped my pole around, then spun again as several more lunged at my exposed side. I snarled and bared my teeth at them, then thought ‘To hell with this,’ and ran at them with sticks swinging. The group flinched away from me, and I gained a few steps back along the path. Rinse. Repeat.
By the time I made it around the bend and the dogs had backed off, I wanted to beat the useless shepherd bloody with my sticks. It wasn’t the last time I encountered dogs on the trek, but it was the scariest.
By the time I reached Dartlo (დართლო) that evening, I was shuffling along the trail and pulling myself along with my poles. My legs and feet were in agony, and I knew there was no freaking way I was going to hike the extra 10+ km to Omalo before nightfall. I listened to the advice of Flo and Melissa — two Germans I hiked the last few kilometers with — and booked a room at the Dartlo Guesthouse for the night. Dinner and breakfast included. Thirty kilometers in one day had been enough.
I’m not sure which was more glorious, the hot shower I took after checking in or the hot food I inhaled after that. But I felt as refreshed as I could’ve hoped to be and had no regrets about calling it quits on the hike to Omalo. That night, I slept like a baby.
Day Four: Dartlo to Omalo
After enjoying a cooked breakfast that morning with Flo and Melissa, we set off together for Omalo, trudging up the gradual incline leading up, up, and away from the picturesque village of Dartlo.
We crested the ridge and began a steep descent, stopping for a snack in a wooded grove before finally catching our first glimpse of Upper Omalo on the opposing hill.
I could’ve stayed, but Omalo (ომალო) wasn’t nearly as impressive to Dartlo, and the rain had just begun to fall again, so I bid a hurried goodbye to Flo and Melissa and hoofed it down through the muck to Lower Omalo.
I managed to secure a ride back to Alvani later in the evening for 50 GEL and spent the next several hours enjoying another (!) cooked meal and catching up on my emails — moving as little as possible. It felt great.
The Road from Omalo to Tbilisi
The ride I’d secured was with another group of tourists, and I snagged a backseat in their 4WD as it bumped and jostled its way over Torha Pass. The road is one of the most epic I’ve ever experienced, right up there with the Pamir Highway in its insanity. The mostly single-lane road made its way up mountains I’d be leery of climbing, and there were times when we literally had to stop on the brink of a precipice to let an oncoming car pass us by.
Needless to say, it was a harrowing and exhilarating journey, and I was more than happy to leave the car when it was done. The tourists whose ride I’d leeched onto graciously offered to take me the rest of the way to Tbilisi, and we made it back to the capital hours later.
What’s an epic hike you’ve done? Was it more or less difficult than you expected? Tell me about it in the comments below!
For GPS tracks you can download and use, check out Jozef’s awesome write-up of this trek. His site, Trekking in the Caucasus, is THE resource for trekking in Georgia.