Photo by Benjamin Kemper
Photo by Benjamin Kemper
In the summertime, residents return to the small towns dotting the Caucasus mountains.
Wolves, avalanches, and months of solitude: a glimpse into life in the Caucasian wilderness.
Deep in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia is a town called Bochorna. The highest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe, it has an altitude of 7,694 feet—or six Empire State buildings stacked on top of each other—and a population of one. But to get there, to that man, and to that town, you need to ford rushing rivers, skid down white-knuckle hairpins, ward off gorilla-sized sheepdogs, and swerve around landslides that are disturbingly fresh. Patience and prayer are on no packing list, but they’re travel essentials for this trip.
Since 2014, I’d visited Georgia seven times as a writer on the Caucasus beat, filling notepads with everything from Georgian Orthodox symbology to grandmothers’ khachapuri recipes, but until 2018, no story had taken me that far into the mountains. Bochorna isn’t just Europe’s highest village—the greater region, Tusheti, is also one of the continent’s most remote (and most unspoiled) corners. Backpackers I knew who had braved the trip returned stupefied, with stories of soaring green mountains more beautiful than the Swiss Alps, medieval stone towers crowning misty hilltops, and welcoming guest houses serving khinkali (garlicky soup dumplings stuffed with caraway-flecked lamb), guda (squeaky sheep’s cheese matured in sheepskin), and chacha (Georgian brandy).
And then there was the prospect of visiting a one-man town on the outermost fringes of civilization. From the moment a Georgian friend told me about Irakli Khvedaguridze, I was interested in meeting him. What would drive a person a mile and a half into the sky away from friends and family, I wanted to ask, and what was life like up there, in the Caucasian wilderness?
From talking with mountain guides, this much I’d gleaned: Khvedaguridze, 78, wasn’t a pious anchorite or a back-to-the-land hippie; misanthropy didn’t send him above the cloudline, nor did Thoreau-esque dreams of self-realization. He lives in Bochorna because, for eight months of the year, when the sole road into the region is clogged with snow, he is his neighbors’ only shot at survival in an emergency. Khvedaguridze is a doctor.
I was curious about Khvedaguridze’s practice, and yes, what he ate, drank, and did to fill the days. But I also wanted to know what he thought. Born in Bochorna and raised in its valleys, Khvedaguridze knows the landscape better than any tour guide or park ranger. With international visits to Georgia jumping 66 percent between 2013 and 2018, what did Tusheti stand to gain—and lose—when the CamelBak-ed hordes inevitably arrived?
My mission to meet Khvedaguridze started in the lowland province of Kakheti, on a mountain road so infamous that it was featured on the BBC series “World’s Most Dangerous Roads.” Kartlos Chabashvili, a guide with the off-road tour company InterGeorgia Travel, was my fixer; in typical Georgian fashion, he knew a guy who knew Khvedaguridze. I asked Chabashvili how long the trip would take. “Four to six hours, depending on driving conditions,” he said, patting my shoulder. Bochorna was just 50 miles away, but it was early June, and the meltwater off the mountains made for sudden landslides. It was going to be a nerve-jangling climb. I fastened my seatbelt and resisted the urge to send friends and family just-in-case “I love you” texts.
Chabashvili thumbed the Toyota 4Runner to life, and we jostled up the narrow, guardrail-less dirt track through thick pine forests that gave way to birch groves, low shrubland, and eventually, wind-whipped meadows mottled with snow. Out the window, way—way—down in the Alazani Valley, I could make out a flock of sheep crawling like a colony of albino ants. At eye level, successions of cragged ridges unfurled toward the horizon. Views this sweeping are usually reserved for takeoff and landing, but in this part of the country, I found, they’re all yours—and often yours alone—for around $150, the price of gas and a guide. (Self-driving isn’t advisable unless you’re an expert off-roader.)
The engine gurgled and hissed as we approached the 9,300-foot Abano Pass, the highest drivable channel in the Caucasus range. Beyond it lay Tusheti. Shoulder-high snowbanks flanked us as we drove on, blocking out the rising sun. Chabashvili gunned the gas harder to make up for the lack of oxygen—even the best engines, he told me, lose around 6 percent of their horsepower for every 2,000 feet of gained altitude. Many travelers didn’t make it this far. I counted more than 20 roadside memorials festooned with flowers and pictures of the deceased. We drove on.
A few decades ago, my journey would’ve been unthinkable. There was no drivable road into Tusheti at all until the ’80s, a period in Soviet history marked by intensive investment in infrastructure called the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, which aimed to accelerate the USSR’s economy and improve its citizens’ standard of living through modernizing industries and consolidating natural resources. The region’s relative inaccessibility helps explain why Tusheti managed to preserve its distinctive dialect, festivals, and animist-influenced Christianity despite countless invasions from the north (Russians) and east (Mongols, Huns, Persians, and various marauding tribes).
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But when the Soviets arrived in Tusheti, they waged a quiet culture war that no rifles or stone walls could counter. In the name of social unity and uniformity, Moscow was determined to assimilate ethnic minorities across the USSR, and the Tushetians—who had inhabited these glens of the Caucasus since time immemorial—were in the crosshairs. Dangling monetary incentives and the promise of modern life (heat! toilets! running water!), government officials had little trouble convincing the vast majority of Tushetians to move down into the valleys and all but abandon their mountain villages, which were ostensibly at odds with the modern, industrial nation in the making.
Of all of Tusheti’s invaders, the Communists dealt the biggest blow to the local culture, but I feared that a wave of mass tourism could snuff it out altogether. Books like Tony Anderson’s Bread and Ashes: A Walk Through the Mountains of Georgia and Peter Nasmyth’s Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry heralded Tusheti as a last bastion of pure Caucasus mountain culture. Selfishly, I hoped it would stay that way—and had a nagging feeling that, being on assignment to cover the region, I wasn’t exactly helping the cause.
As I contemplated this, the first villages of Tusheti came into focus, guarded by tapered stone towers called koshkebi. With pyramidal roofs, peephole windows, and machicolations (openings from which scalding oil and other noxious liquids could be poured over intruders), they’re so medieval that it’s no stretch to half-expect armed knights to appear at any minute. They never did, but I was not left wanting for koshkebi: In Tusheti they are seemingly everywhere, in various states of disrepair.
The house looked abandoned, save for a plume of smoke coming from a lone chimney. The doctor was in.
After another hour of vertical zigzagging, we were finally in Bochorna—or, rather, just below it. Even the 4x4 couldn’t make it up Khvedaguridze’s near-sheer driveway, so we clambered up the final hundred yards with knobby walking sticks cribbed from the car’s backseat. The house looked abandoned, save for a plume of smoke coming from a lone chimney. The doctor was in. Suddenly, there he was: a slight man with sunglasses, bushy eyebrows, and wispy white hair stepping out onto a rickety wooden verandah overhead. Khvedaguridze waved and motioned us up the porch with a booming Gaumarjos! (“To your victory!”).
After a sandpaper handshake, Khvedaguridze pulled out two beat-up wooden chairs and invited us to sit. He—all 5’ 6’’ of him—stayed standing, his feet planted and shoulders rolled back like an army cadet. I got the impression he didn’t sit much. Past the balcony, I saw a shamrock-green mountainscape stretching in all directions. A thread of microscopic villages edged along the Gometsari Valley toward the Russian border, some 10 miles away as the crow flies. These reawaken every summer, when thousands of seminomadic locals return from the lowlands with their flocks of sheep and livestock. It would be another couple of weeks before these husks again turned into hives of activity.
Khvedaguridze was gruff at first—skeptical, it seemed, of us, even though Chabashvili had arranged the meeting in advance. But little by little, he opened up. A lifelong neurologist, he never thought he’d be delivering babies or suturing wounds, but when he moved back part-time to Bochorna in 2010 for a slower pace of life, he realized quickly that duty called. So much for retirement. “I’ve saved 29 people up here,” said Khvedaguridze, who has a wife and kids down in the Alazani Valley whom he sees sporadically in the summer months. “There are 45 villages in this region spanning approximately 50 square miles, and 31 get no cell service. If I don’t check in on them and make regular rounds, they have no way to seek medical help.”
In winter, these house calls entail strapping on homemade skis—wooden planks Khvedaguridze macgyvered together with metal hinges and rope, since he couldn’t afford name-brand ones—and trudging through shoulder-high snow for 10 hours at a clip. In his backpack, he keeps scalpels, forceps, splints, and a smorgasbord of medications, supplies that the Georgian government began helicoptering in in 2017, realizing that this hale septuagenarian was the region’s only lifeline. (Alarmingly, nobody is waiting in the wings.)
Barring the fleeting two months of summer, when Tusheti fills with shepherding families, Georgian vacationers, and the intrepid tourist, Khvedaguridze is usually on the move, trekking from village to village. The little downtime he has he spends at home listening to the radio, doing crosswords, and reading magazines by candlelight. Firewood is his cabin’s only heat source, internet is nonexistent, and solar panels supply just enough energy to power a single light bulb and his banged-up flip phone, which he uses like a walkie-talkie: calls in, calls out. With winter temperatures that can plummet to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, he doesn’t miss having a refrigerator.
“My heart starts pounding when I hear that strange creaking noise coming from the mountain.”
Khvedaguridze has gotten used to to this austere, hermetic lifestyle, but not to the dangers that go along with it. “Our gorge got another wolf last year, but I fear avalanches the most,” he said, giving little fanfare to the idea that he tracks and identifies individual wolves. “My heart starts pounding when I hear that strange creaking noise coming from the mountain.”
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But Khvedaguridze doesn’t relish playing the role of Superman. He shied away from telling 911-emergency stories, taking no pleasure in their perceived entertainment value. His patients are his friends, and they suffer because he can’t do enough. He wishes the region had a hospital and better—or really any—infrastructure come winter. In conversation, he lamented the area’s shoddy cell service, the most crucial lifeline in a medical emergency. But most of all, he worries that Tusheti will go the way of Bochorna: that the region at large will end up abandoned eight months of the year. Khvedaguridze has reason to be concerned: Tusheti currently has 23 year-round residents. When he was a kid, that number topped 500. Perhaps an influx of people, regardless of their provenance, could be good for the region after all.
As Khvedaguridze spoke and Chabashvili translated, Chabashvili occasionally interrupted him with an outstretched palm, the universal sign for “slow down.” It wasn’t for my benefit but for Chabashvili’s: Tushetians speak Georgian in a dialect so archaic that Georgians from other parts of the country are often left scratching their heads. (A dwindling handful of Tushetians also speak Bats, an unwritten Northeast Caucasian language related to Chechen.)
In Bochorna, a heady mix of Christian and pagan religious traditions also harks back to Georgia’s ancient past. Men pray to pagan-Christian demigods such as Elia (for rain), Kopala (for strength), and Khati (for safe journeys) in low stone shrines called khatebi adorned with rams’ horns, candles, and crystals. Women, including female tourists, are forbidden from approaching them, a holdover from a time when Tushetians believed menstruating women were impure for worship. Animal sacrifice remains integral to Tushetian spirituality, and rams are often slaughtered to the hum of Christian prayer. Kvedaguridze’s great-great-great-grandfather, a Georgian Orthodox priest, founded Bochorna’s first brick-and-mortar church in 1880, and he remains deeply religious. “My job would be impossible without God’s help,” he said.
Unlike Georgia’s more cloistered mountain communities—such as the Svans in the northwest and the Khevsurs in the northeast—Tushetians are no strangers to outsiders. Their ancient transhumant culture led their shepherds into faraway valleys where locals might not speak their language or practice the same religion. Until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, which put hard borders between Georgia and the surrounding countries, a Tushetian pastor’s flocks might graze in the steppeland of Azerbaijan before progressing in summer to the high mountains of Chechnya or Dagestan. Over the millennia, Tushetians learned an important lesson: that it paid to be nice.
In large part, it’s because of this collective graciousness that when tourists began trickling into the region in the early 2000s, they were met with open arms. Back then, there was nary a working telephone in Tusheti, let alone cell service or an internet connection, so only the most dauntless foreigner arrived to those green hills and those misty towers. Given the odyssey required to reach the region, most visitors arriving on foot were plunked down and rewarded with a feast, as my friends were. Today, though the influx of tourists pales in comparison to other parts of Georgia, you can book any number of family-run guesthouses in the region’s main villages (Omalo, Dartlo, and Diklo, each an hour or so from Bochorna). Even now, Tusheti’s first corporate hotel, the 43-room Samzeo in Omalo, lies in hibernation ahead of its first full summer season.
Despite these modern developments for travelers, many native Tushetians remain disconnected from the broader world. Change may be on the way: In 2017, a telecommunications project funded by the Internet Society, an American nonprofit, announced its goal to bring internet to 26 Tushetian villages, including Bochorna. The Wi-Fi towers are in place, but for reasons that remain unclear, there’s still no reliable connection anywhere. (The relevant government agency did not respond to requests for comment.)
Khvedaguridze lamented this as he shepherded us back down toward the car, the last rays of daylight illuminating our rocky path. “People forget about us because we live in an information vacuum most of the year,” he said. “If there were better mobile coverage, a few TV channels, and a dependable internet connection, more Tushetians would stay in the mountains through the year and more tourists would visit. I guarantee it.”
There, then, is the heart of the issue. For Khvedaguridze and his community, more visitors also mean company, entertainment, income, peace of mind, and—without a doubt—lives saved. But connecting Tusheti to the outside world means the region will no longer be the off-the-grid oasis beloved by backpackers; instead, it means accelerated globalization in a thinning community defined by its distinctive, millennia-old traditions. Already, across Georgia, the dark side of that shift can be seen in places like Mestia and Stepantsminda, where growing pains come in the shape of ugly concrete guesthouses, increased litter and pollution, and the loss of farmland. Millennia-old languages like Svan (spoken in Svaneti) are in danger of dying out, too, as rural Georgians look to standard Georgian, English, and other languages more conducive to outward communication.
Whatever the immediate future holds for Tusheti, there’s one constant: Khvedaguridze. Leading us down his pebbly drive, he paused to look toward the mountains. An imperial eagle swooped overhead, its wings glowing like embers in the afternoon sun. “Even if I weren’t a doctor, I could never leave this place,” he said. “I was born in Bochorna, and I will die here—with grace.”
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