In the middle of October when I decided to go to Tusheti, everyone even my Alvanian taxi driver was against it. Usually, at this time of year it starts to snow on the Abano Pass (2800m) until May and all Tusheti becomes isolated from the rest of Georgia. However, I had a special reason for going to Tusheti - I wanted to experience pastoral lifestyle, i.e. follow a flock of sheep all the way down from Omalo to Alvani (around 75 km) and depict everything through my lens.
As I was told by my hostess in Lower Omalo, most of the flocks already had been herded out of Tusheti and only 2 or 3 were left and if I was lucky enough, she would help me to link up with one of them.
Waking up into the pristine nature of Omalo, north of the Caucasian mountain range, is quite a shock, especially after Tbilisi’s forever expanding traffic jams and almost unbreathable smog. Here one feels connected to nature at its fullest strength - the mountains, rivers, waterfalls, trees, birds, and animals… First, I see a white spot on the green grass, then this spot increases and becomes a ball. Later, it reshapes itself into an arrow and finally, I can recognise sheep and silhouettes of shepherds leading them.
I get introduced to the owners and shepherds of the 1,300 flock of sheep - brothers Temo and Dato Gagoidze, and Vano, who is a hired shepherd, amongst which I am also introduced to many Caucasian sheep dogs. We start our 75km journey through the autumn colours and snowy landscapes.
After graduating from the Law Department at Tbilisi State University in the 90’s, Temo wanted to follow his profession and become a prosecutor but he was deeply disappointed when he was asked to pay 25,000 dollars for a lawyer's position at the Prosecutors Office. Although he could get the money by selling all his sheep, he decided to go back to his village of Alvani and continue the family tradition of sheep business, together with his brother Dato.
In hindsight, he does not regret his choice but he says that shepherding is truly a disappearing business nowadays. “Everybody wants to live in Tbilisi, everybody wants to have a car, iPhone, iPad but no one wants to work. For example, I cannot find a good shepherd in my village of Alvani, which is predominantly populated by Tushetians; they prefer to idle around at home and in the streets, and wait for the money transfers from their mothers who work in Turkey and Greece. I pay 1,000 GEL per month to a shepherd, however I hardly found one from the Kvemo Kartli Region and even he could not stay the whole summer and he sneaked out.
For the next year, we have some recruits from Imereti. We’ll see how good they are. But the main problems in the sheep business are increased prices for winter pastures in Shiraki and raised taxes on exporting sheep. Shiraki valley is bought by private owners and they put as much rent as they like; there is no law regulating the pasture prices. And by increasing exporting taxes, we don’t see the Arab merchants anymore. Only the Azeris come and they want everything at low prices.”