Driving along the twisting dirt road we ascend into the clouds on the mountain path. Our van bumps along and winds through muddy streams as we make our way towards Tusheti.
The road is not for the faint of heart. Built during the Soviet-era, it is barely wide enough to fit one car at a time and has sheer drops on the sides into the ravines below. Yet, this is the only route to reach the mountain villages in Tusheti, so take it or leave it. As we venture along I notice the marked memorials to the drivers who were not so fortunate to survive the journey.
Tusheti is located on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, about 190 kilometers from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, and it borders the tumultuous Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.
I feel a sense of relief when we finally descend from the clouds towards a small village with a dark stone guesthouse protruding from its center. I am traveling with Nino Nanitashvili, my friend who has made the trek to Tusheti to assess how the recent installation of the internet has impacted people’s life in these remote villages.
We hop out of the car and walk towards the house, hoping to find a place to stay for the night. Like most houses in Tusheti, the guesthouse is made from meticulously laid shale stone and has a weathered wooden porch.
We are greeted by Elene Gagoidze and her nephew, Lasha Gagoidze. Elene throws up her arms with joy and welcomes us into her home. She assures us she has room in her home to host us and insists on cooking us dinner. Before we can get a foot in the door she hurries back to the kitchen.
Elene, 63, is one of the only people in Shenako, a village perched at 2,080 meters, who stays year-round while 24-year-old Lasha only lives here during the summer months. As the fall approaches he migrates to Kvemo Alvani — a town situated at the base of the mountain—where he lives and works during the harsh winters. Many others in Tusheti split their lives migrating up and down the mountains depending on the season.
During the winter months it is nearly impossible to reach Tusheti from any of the towns at the base of the winding road. When snow begins to fall in October, the road becomes impassable and during the frigid winter the villages are largely isolated from the rest of Georgia. Then many Tushi families migrate to Alvani or Tbilisi where it is easier to access resources and there is a more reliable stream of income.
In recent years the Georgian government has proposed a plan to construct a better road through the mountains with the stated goal to develop tourism and help locals remain in their villages throughout the year. The local opinion is split.
The Tsova Tush, one of the oldest communities in the region, are largely in favor of the construction. The Tsova used to reside in villages above the River Pirikita Alazani but resettled down in the plains, in villages like of Zemo Alvani, during the early 19th century. They hope that a road will allow them to return to their historic villages which have been empty since they left.
Other Tushetians however are concerned that the project will damage the ecosystem and destroy the pristine mountain landscape as the plans foresee a route cutting directly through Tusheti’s national park. There is also concern that the road will detract from the region’s unique natural appeal and cause a decline in the burgeoning ecotourism economy. About 7,000 people have signed a petition against the proposed road construction.
We sit with Lasha on the worn stone stairs leading down to the guesthouse garden and look out to the fields below. The pasture is dotted with small stone buildings and horses idly grazing. A shepherd tends to his flock of sheep in the distance.
A mountain guide, Lasha knows every stone on these peaks and helps Elene run her guesthouse during the summer months. The new internet connection has made it much easier to arrange online bookings.
In 2017 the Tusheti Development Fund, a local grassroots organization, joined forces with a group of organizations and the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development to bring the world wide web to the region.
Tusheti’s isolated location means that its residents had been largely disconnected from the rest of the country, unable to communicate with family and friends living elsewhere. Within Tusheti the unreliable cell coverage often left locals without a way to contact the only doctor in the area.
Today the internet operates in 14 villages, and in seven of them the internet is the only connection with outside world, due to the lack of cellular coverage.
“Bringing internet to one of Georgia’s most remote and preserved settlements has caused controversies. Some people believe that being disconnected is part of the authentic Tushetian experience” says Ninusta who heads the Tbilisi-based Innovation Support Fund.
“It is true that Tusheti is a very special place for adventurers. However, is internet really capable of decreasing its rich value? Looking at the impact it has brought for the local population, we can only say it has been a blessing,” she notes. Ninutsa adds that the internet has “rescued” the local population and travellers can opt to not use it if they find it diminishes their experience.
The internet has improved living conditions in the region and it provides new business opportunities for local families; in particular, it has impacted the hospitality sector. Local guesthouse owners like Elene have been able to increase their online presence by offering online booking options. Not to mention connecting with family and friends, getting access to news, and obtaining information about government programs and donor-supported business funding opportunities.
“The internet would have been good to have ten years ago, but now it is essential,” says Lasha.
For inhabitants staying year-round, like Elene and her family, the connection is provided for free. During this upcoming winter, the costs will be covered by the local government.
When Elene opened her guesthouse in 1998, the number of tourists climbing on these peaks could be counted on one hand. She was the first to believe in the area’s potential and time has proved her right: Over the years, Tusheti has increasingly become a popular destination for hikers, mountain bikers, and intrepid nature lovers. As tourism becomes a greater part of the economy, many local Tushi families have opened guesthouses and cafes to host tourists during the summer months. But it is not a game changer for the locals.
“It’s not usually full though, we usually only have four or five people at a time. Sometimes none at all,” Lasha says about the guest house, which has grown to fit 14 people at a time.
As snow falls down in meters, guesthouses and cafes cannot cater to tourists who cannot reach Tusheti. Although Lasha spends most of the year down in the plains working in agriculture, returning to Tusheti each summer is important to him.
“I feel very connected to my family and community here. Each summer I return to the same faces and traditions” he says.
Suddenly Elene whirls through the kitchen door and comes into the dining room to lay down her hard work on the table. She’s made us a crisp cucumber and tomato salad, steaming lamb khinkali, Georgia’s traditional dumplings, and warm khachapuri, the country’s signature cheese-filled bread.
Elene has spent all her life in Tusheti. She was a teenager when her parents passed away and at 21 she married her husband, Kako, and they raised their daughter and two sons in Shenako.
She reminisced on a time when Omalo used to be the true center of life in Tusheti.
There was a time when Omalo teemed with life, its large market attracting people from the valleys around. There was a library and a hospital, Elene recalls with nostalgia. That time is long gone - today Omalo is still the largest settlement in Tusheti but only 37 people live there year-round, according to the 2014 census.
“There was a time when 15 families would stay throughout the whole year in my village,” Elene says. “For the last two years only one other household has remained year-round”
Elene’s life has not changed over the decades. Now grandparents, she and Kako continue to raise cattle, goats, horses and produce cheese. Her daughter has lived in Russia for the past eight years. With a wide smile and pride in her voice, she tells me that her granddaughter visited her in Shenako for the first time last year.
She reminiscences about old times growing up in Shenako when there were no borders and all the people of the Caucasus were like friends. She explains how it used to be convenient to travel to Dagestan to get supplies for the winter months. This is no longer an option.
“When borders get closed, that’s when enemies arise” she says.
Lasha leaves us to update an online booking for the guest house.
Elena and Nino and I finish our meal and she shows us to the room where we will stay. The bed is made up with a colorful, patchwork quilt. The room feels like home.
“I have spent my whole life here and and I don't regret a thing” Elene says.
Journeys, December/January 2018/2019