June 24, 2024


sights and trips

A rare look at a perilous journey in the Caucasus Mountains

It was around six in the morning when the anxious voice of Giorgi Karsamauli woke me in a tent I’d pitched in the middle of a soggy road. “Quick, get up, we have to go!” said the shepherd. Cold air rushed in through the tent’s open flap, along with the sound of a torrent of rain hitting the road. His flock of 850 sheep was nowhere to be seen.

Giorgi, a jovial 29-year-old, now seemed to have lost his usual cheer, the expression on his face dead serious, even horrified. He hurried off to his old pickup truck without bothering to zip up my tent. Outside, the rain soaked my coat minutes after I left the tent. The whistles and shouts of shepherds could be heard in the distance.

On this disorienting morning in May 2019, the shepherds, accompanied by our National Geographic team, should have been on the final leg of their 155-mile migration from the winter pastures in the Shiraki Valley to Tusheti, an isolated and atmospheric region of peaks in Georgia’s northeast. But the weather changed everything on this timeless tradition to reach summer pastures. Instead of making the last push over a ridge, the shepherds retreated to the safety of a lower slope, leaving behind a scattering of sheep that had frozen to death during the night.

At the southern foot of the Caucasus Mountains in the village of Alvani, some 60 miles from the capital, Tbilisi, a sheep pen perches on the bank of the river. The enclosure of wooden posts and mesh wire can easily accommodate the large flock owned by the Karsamaulis, a family whose sheep-breeding tradition has endured for three generations. Like most Tushetians, the Karsamaulis spend seven or eight months in Alvani and in the valley pastures. With the arrival of spring, they herd the sheep into the Tusheti highlands—to the pristine alpine pastures surrounding their village, Vestomta.

(Discover what you can learn by following the herd in Italy.)

From May to September, the sheep, a local breed, munch on the area’s alpine bluegrass, sheep fescue, bromus, cat grass, Schott’s sedge, toothed bellflower, and lotus—some of the high-protein grasses that give Tushetian sheep milk its distinct flavor. From the Shiraki Valley, shepherds walk for seven days, about 90 miles, to Alvani, where they rest and spend time with their families for a few weeks before making the final three-day, 62-mile climb to Vestomta.

According to records, in the 16th and 17th centuries the highlanders were given winter dwellings and farmland in the Shiraki Valley and Alvani by King Levan, who ruled Georgia’s Kakheti region, to celebrate the end of a long-standing conflict. Ever since, the annual migration to Tusheti has been a way of life.

A trained veterinarian and the family patriarch, Robizon Karsamauli, 58, has worked with sheep for over three decades, just as his father once did. Now his eldest son, Giorgi, follows. On the sunny morning I meet them, the family is preparing to push the flock to the summer pasture. 

“Drive them out, Parna!” Giorgi shouts to his younger brother to make himself heard over the bleating. Four Karsamauli generations live in a two-story house by the Alazani River. Their Tushetian dialect is distinct from Georgian. “Grandma, have you prepared the dowry?” Giorgi asks an elderly woman. The words are so different that at times I can barely grasp the meaning. I realize that by “dowry” Giorgi means the luggage to be taken to the mountains and food for the road. But still I wondered whether it was literally meant or one of Giorgi’s jokes.

Giorgi, also a trained ecologist, wants to modernize the old traditions, an idea that came to him after he traveled to Italy and France. There he observed how sheep farmers incorporated new methods in breeding and cheese making while preserving the heritage ways. Giorgi experiments with different heirloom techniques to make sheep’s milk cheese, which is cured in a sheepskin (or sometimes goatskin) sack, called a guda, giving the cheese its name: Tushetian guda. The traditional method of making the cheese was nearly lost in the Soviet era, when collective farms dominated production and guda sacks were replaced with cheaper plastic bags that resulted in a low-quality product. But families like the Karsamaulis kept the old ways alive.

Today they’ve joined forces with five other breeders, forming an association for producing Tushetian cheese, and in 2019 with support from the FAO and other organizations, the group succeeded in registering Tushetian guda as a coveted appellation of origin, which guarantees authenticity: Not only must the cheese ripen in the sheepskin sack, the sheep must graze exclusively in Tusheti’s alpine pastures. It’s a move that will help them gain an edge in tough economic times—consumers are willing to pay double for the gourmet product.

Tiny Vestomta balances on a peak. I count about 10 houses. One belongs to the Karsamaulis, who now welcome visitors. They’ve turned the house into a hotel, a transformation that was as labor intensive as the migration: Since the village cannot be reached by car, all construction materials had to come on horseback.

To get here, you take a footpath at the road’s end. The narrow trail zigzags along a steep, forested slope for several miles. The view is breathtaking, silence dominates. Nothing hints at a human presence except for the lone sight of Vestomta in the distance, the size of the palm of a hand against the backdrop of mountains, hanging between sky and earth.

In early May, the road to Tusheti is still closed from snow cover and the sheep trails still untrodden. Giorgi’s herd would be the first to reach the untouched pastures—a privilege bestowed that year by valley elders but also a risk with the unpredictable spring weather.

After staying for a few weeks in Alvani, the shepherds were ready. On the morning of May 7, Robizon begins the climb with Ilia Basilashvili, a shepherd who has worked with the Karsamaulis for almost eight years. Giorgi and I, and three hired shepherds, will join them later. This year’s snow was so deep that taking horses, which typically ferry supplies, was out of the question. A pickup truck followed the group to help carry essentials: traditional wool overcoats called nabadi, rolls of thick plastic to protect the coats from rain and snow, food for the three-day ascent, and packs of cheap cigarettes.

Robizon’s wife, Tina Beladidze, provides crucial business savvy and logistical support for the family business. She’s in charge of negotiating rates and paying the shepherds. And the sheep aren’t the only animals to make the journey to Tusheti. Later in spring, she’ll herd the family’s cattle to the highlands. Tina also runs the family hotel in Vestomta, offering traditional Tushetian fare to tourists.

“We Tushetians have been absorbed in sheep breeding since early childhood, and since our husbands and children follow this trade, we women support them and have to work alongside them,” she says. “The children who grow up working this way will be more invested in their land and will try to make sure that this small country’s even smaller region, Tusheti, continues to exist.”

The more I talk to Tina and the Karsamaulis, the more I realize how essential it is for them to pass on their traditions. Tina explains that breeding sheep for meat and cheese is not merely a source of income but a way to preserve their connection to a place their ancestors inhabited for centuries.

(Learn about the oldest evidence of winemaking, discovered in a Georgian village.)

Tushetian folk tales and legends that predate the arrival of Christianity in the fourth century recount stories of sheep breeding, from a time when slate temples adorned with beeswax candles hosted ancient rituals. Local historian Zurab Murtazashvili writes that some rites may date back even further, to Sumerian times, when “cattle breeding was protected by the goddess of love and fertility, Inanna, and sheep breeding was protected by Dorael (Dumuzi), the shepherd deity that brought love, fertility, and spring.”

Today their way of life is fading as a new generation is drawn to more profitable occupations and modern ways. The predictable result: fewer Tushetians choose the mountains. They often find work in construction—or emigrate.

Giorgi and I met up with the shepherds in the evening, in the village of Pshaveli, where they had begun the so-called washdown to disinfect the sheep—ridding them of parasites before they enter the pristine mountain pastures. The free, government-run disinfecting stations are still closed this early in May, so the Karsamaulis paid to use the old, private bath in Pshaveli, a practice that predated the new system.

In addition to following modern regulatory rules, breeders also stick to a pre-Christian custom: banning pork in Tusheti. The animal is believed to bring bad luck. Some families shun pork altogether, avoiding it in the valley too. Tusheti elder Masho Abaidze-Betsunaidze, 83, recalls that before starting out for the highlands, she and her family would leave even their pigskin footwear in the valley.

The morning after the washdown, the shepherds began herding the flock up along the Pshaveli-Abano-Omalo road—the most treacherous in Georgia but usually safe for those who travel on foot. It follows the Stori River gorge through the Abano Pass up to Omalo village. In the Karsamaulis’ yearly ascent, it’s actually the least dangerous part of their seasonal migration—that is, in fair weather. A downpour, like the one we witnessed, adds peril. 

Our caravan climbed to 6,560 feet. The beauty of the towering Tushetian villages contrasts with the poignancy of their abandonment.

Centuries ago these remote hamlets were crafted from slate and dotted with signal towers that defended against invading tribes from the north. Even here the seasonal shift was reflected in microcosm: before they moved into the Shiraki Valley, ancient Tushetians had constructed winter abodes on lower, sunnier slopes, and in the summer moved higher, to more remote dwellings, for the pastures.

“Now the villages are nearly empty. Those who own hotels are mainly the ones who come up here,” says Nunu Saghiridze, 63. She has renovated an 18th-century fortress tower in Verkhovani into a hotel. Like other Tushetian villages, Verkhovani lies far off the paved road, and intrepid visitors must cross a river by car to get there. Steeped in age-old mountain isolation, the entire Tusheti region has so far rebuffed the mass tourism that is transforming much of the rest of Georgia. In Tusheti entire roads are washed away by rain—as we would soon discover.

We hoped to reach the 9,800-foot crest at Tkis Tavi, or “forest’s end,” before nightfall. This would be our final campsite before crossing the narrow path, known as Snowy Pass, to Vestomta.

We didn’t make it. Dusk caught up with us, and we ended up stationing the flock on a steep slope by a curve in the road. There was no open space or grass for the sheep to graze on. I set up my tent on the road’s crumbling pavement.

“Shepherds don’t carry tents and sleeping bags. They’re too heavy for traveling,” says Ilia Basilashvili. “We cover ourselves with plastic sheets or a piece of tarp if it rains. We sleep on the ground.”

In the evening, temperatures dropped and it started to drizzle. Huddled around the campfire, the shepherds reassured each other that the rain would stop. But as the night went on, a storm rolled in. By dawn the rain had turned to hail, sleet, and snow.

Covered in yellow grass the day before, the mountains were white with snow when Giorgi roused me that chaotic morning. Rocks rumbled down the slopes around us, landslides that grew bigger by the minute. The shepherds rushed to lead the sheep downhill to safety and I too followed. Half-asleep and deafened by the rain and thunder, we did not realize that during the night a bear had stumbled into camp, attacking sheep and stealing away with lambs.

An hour later it was still snowing, and stones continued to tumble down. Five of us—our driver and the National Geographic team—sought shelter in a car. We were stuck at the edge of a precipice, desperate for a cell signal, when from afar we watched a mass of snow release from the mountain with a roar. The crashing of trees snapped by the avalanche echoed through the gorge. 

The road was strewn with dead or dying sheep. The shepherds cut the throats of the injured animals to put them out of their misery and hoped to salvage their meat and hides. The surviving sheep, hungry and scattered on the slope, nibbled on odd patches of grass.

“What on earth!” Robizon mumbled after a sleepless night. “I’ve been coming to these mountains my whole life, but I’ve never seen a disaster of this scale.” It hit close to home: The Karsamaulis lost almost a hundred sheep that day—worth about $5,000.

The landslides destroyed most of the road: gaps several feet wide appeared, and in some places entire sections were washed away. Our reporting team walked back to Alvani. For us, it ended that journey to Tusheti—though we would rejoin the Karsamaulis later in the season and accompany them back down to the valley.

As for the others, after rangers cleared the road with bulldozers two days after the disaster, the shepherds simply pushed on. It took them multiple attempts to finally make it over the Snowy Pass ridge. But what they encountered on the other side was equally disheartening. The gorge had swelled with water, washing away the road. The shepherds had to find a way around it. 

Water destroys the road here almost every spring. In 2017 a landslide dammed the river, and the resulting lake now overflows annually. Seemingly undeterred, the national road authority routinely repairs sections of the road to Tusheti. Conservation laws and environmental concerns, however, have hampered more extensive road construction plans put forth by supporters of year-round access to Tusheti.

“For Tusheti to develop, it should become possible to travel there during 12 rather than four months a year,” says Giorgi Gotsiridze, founder of the company Geographic, which focuses on technology for spacial information management in Georgia. Geographic and the architectural firm Studio 21 have a proposed plan for developing Akhmeta, the district that includes Tusheti. Upgrading the only road that leads to Tusheti is naturally a critical part of the project. The plan includes a loop road that would ensure year-round access to all Tusheti settlements.

In 2003 the Georgian Parliament designated 114,000 hectares of Tusheti as a protected area in the form of parks and other reserves. Infrastructure projects must be approved by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, which is in the process of reviewing the environmental impact of the plan.

Activists, including some locals, signed a petition opposing the new road. “This project is aimed at developing mass tourism in Tusheti, which endangers its wildlife,” explains Ted Jonas, one of the petition’s authors and a board member of the Caucasus Nature Fund. “People find Tusheti attractive because they can cover long distances walking and riding horses and go where cars cannot go. This in itself is an attraction.” The petition, he adds, is against the construction of new roads, not the renewal of the existing one.

Visitors who embark on the steep hairpin roads are rewarded with the chance to revel in the stunning landscape and to savor the region’s unique culture and hospitality synonymous with Georgia. Hotels crafted from fortresses like the one in Verkhovani lend a modern twist to ancient ways: More Tushetian families embrace tourism as a means to earn a living, easing the hardships of sheep breeding.

The Karsamaulis manage to blend tourism with preserving their ancestral heritage. Their Vestomta hotel, opened several years ago, hosts up to 300 visitors annually. While Tina looks after tourists, Robizon tends to the flock outside the village.

The shepherds milk the livestock once or twice a day, then process the raw milk using locally gathered nettle leaves. “Nettle has bristles, right? When it is squeezed into the vessel, it filters and cleans the milk,” Robizon explained. The curd is formed into rounds, salted, and cured for at least 45 days in the animal skins—turned inside out so the short-trimmed wool touches the cheese, which lends a characteristic briny flavor—ripening at the ideal temperature and airflow.

(Here’s how California’s cheese trail avoided a meltdown during a challenging year.)

Local guides offer hiking or horseback tours of the old villages and Tusheti National Park. Family lodges like the Karsamauli’s treat visitors to supras, traditional Georgian feasts lasting several hours. Each July villages hold festivals, called atingenebi, that include horse-riding tournaments and stilt-walking competitions. Sometimes mock battles are organized between women and men using dull pikes and whips.

“Historically, women in Tusheti learned martial arts alongside men,” explains Koba Bakhturidze, who spends summers in his ancestors’ village, Iliurta. Women play an equal role to men in Tushetian village councils, he proudly notes.

You’ll hardly find a Tushetian who does not gaze longingly at the snowy summits of their homeland every summer. Connected by narrow paths through deep gorges, the tiny villages scattered among the spectacular mountains are not only the land of their ancestors but also sacred places in a landscape of tradition, celebrated in song and poetry.

Tushetians abroad often are drawn to return. “I cannot imagine that a year could pass without me coming here,” says Maia Iukuridze, 34, who has lived in the United States for 15 years. As we sit on a bench in the courtyard of a hotel in Omalo, we face the gorge, set in the mountains, the noise of its river reaching us from the depths.

On the night before, Maia and her daughter sang to the melody of a guitar and an accordion for French tourists gathered around a fire. Some were Tushetian songs she wrote herself, others were American blues and folk tunes. “I want everyone to see, to appreciate why we love these mountains,” Maia says, including her own daughter.

With autumn comes comes the descent. On the steep trails of the pass, already covered in snow, the female sheep walk in a row, followed by bleating lambs. The shepherds at the head and tail of the flock whistle to keep the sheep moving.

Robizon Karsamauli closed the transhumance, as the migration cycle is called, in Tushetian tradition: he lit a honeycomb candle on the stone wall of a temple, toasted to the road with a shot of vodka, and chased it down with gordila, a Tushetian dish of boiled dough.

When he arrived in Alvani three days later, Robizon was promptly met by sheep dealers, standing by for the descent, ready to cut deals. Robizon decided to hold out for better offers (he can fetch up to $100 for a sheep). He’ll typically sell about a hundred each fall, most of which will be exported to Central Asia for meat.

Back home, Robizon’s son Giorgi, ever the tinkerer, was starting to experiment with producing a new cheese, along with the traditional guda variety. He hopes to keep the pastoral wanderings alive, estimating that only 10 to 15 sheep breeders in his generation remained.

Tina and son Parna herded the cattle to the plains ahead of the shepherds. Once again, for three days she slept under the stars wrapped in nabadi, waiting for the shepherds to join her in Alvani, where they make their primary home for the winter.

In the 30 years that Robizon and Tina have been migrating with their sheep, they’ve never taken a holiday. If you had a choice, I asked, what would you have changed in your lives? “I’ve wanted to do something else for years, but I guess Tusheti is in our blood,” Tina replied. 

“Once you become attached to your land, you start loving it so much that you don’t mind the ordeals, the hard work and labor that you’ve been through all summer. When you cross the mountain pass on foot, you forget everything: blizzard, snow, storm. And when spring comes to the valley, you look at the mountains again, thinking impatiently, I wonder when…”

Giorgi Gogua is a writer and photographer from Tbilisi, Georgia. Follow him on Instagram. French photographer Fernando Javier Urquijo frequently visits Georgia. Tbilisi-based photographer Nikoloz Mchedlidze is also an architect. Follow him on Instagram.

This story was originally published in the October 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine’s Georgia edition.