Tourism rescues Omalo, Georgia, from oblivion

Tourism rescues Omalo, Georgia, from oblivion
A man is walking his dog in lower Omalo. Photo credit: Tomer Ifrah

Through the Greater Caucasus mountain range that forms the northern belt of Georgia, the slim road of the Abano pass cuts a treacherous path. In fact the term “road” is a little generous; for 45 miles, this dirt track cut out of the edge of the mountainside swells and contracts as it snakes upwards to a height of 2,000 metres. The sheer drop along the road edge claims several lives every year, and its reputation was cemented when it featured in the BBC World’s Most Dangerous Road documentary in 2013. But this is the only route to reach the villages of Tusheti, a region tucked deep within these mountains. At the end of the pass, the mountains give way to a grassy plateau as Omalo, Tusheti’s largest village and administrative centre, comes into view.

From June to September, Georgians travel along this road from their homes in Kakheti to escape the lowland heat and spend the season in family homes dotted across Tusheti’s 49 villages. For the rest of the year,the Abano pass is engulfed in snow, with temperatures dropping to -30C, cutting Tusheti off from the rest of the country.

The recent upswing in tourism in Georgia has boosted what is a small and slow-growing economy, and for places like Tusheti, it’s filling a gap left by the shrinking shepherding tradition that’s been the core of Tush culture for centuries. For hikers and adventure seekers, their journey begins with braving the road to enjoy the hiking and wild beauty of Tusheti, and to stay in traditional wooden houses in Omalo or camp in the mountains.

“When I was little, the houses in Omalo weren’t as big as they are now,” says 27-year-old Keti Tauberidze, a medical student from Tbilisi, gesturing to the few wooden homes nearby that share this hillside. Born in Akhmeta, an administrative town in the lowlands close to where the Abano pass begins its ascent, Tauberidze has been coming here every summer since she was a child.

“My grandfather was born here and he built this house,” she says. “I think it’s fun when tourists come here; I like the chance to talk to foreigners, and their presence gives us jobs. Well, not me personally,” she smiles, “but others, sure. Our nature here is wild and unspoiled, and I don’t want that to change.” Their house is simple and sparsely furnished, including a slim, carved wooden bed built by Tauberidze’s great-grandmother.

This is an excerpt from an article by Nadia Beard, originally published by The Guardian

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