On a free day in October 2020 I took up the opportunity to travel to one of the few mountain areas left in Georgia that I didn’t visit yet: Khevsureti. North from Tbilisi, it is a border region with Russia and its federal republics Chechnya and Ingushetia. A remote area of outstanding natural beauty, with famous historic sights such as Shatili and Mutso. The weather also promised to be splendid for the time of year.
For many years the road to Shatili (the Sh26 national road) has been infamous for its poor quality. Not as notorious as the road to Tusheti, but in bad shape nevertheless. Sensitive to landslides, avalanches and seasonal closures. In recent years efforts have been put into upgrading the infrastructure to the outer regions of Georgia. A major plan was launched to connect Kazbegi with Shatili (via Juta across the 3056 meter high Sadzele Pass), and to Tusheti and Pankisi via Mutso, Ardoti and Mount Borbola.
Connectivity versus eco-tourism
The interconnectivity between the northern remote mountain valleys has been criticized by environmentalists and local villagers alike, fearing mass tourism. There are many hiking and horse riding trails in the area connecting various valleys, which attracts local and foreign tourists for its tranquility and natural beauty. Locals fear roads they don’t need will attract motorized tourist traffic spoiling the reasons why many hikers and horse riders come here in the first place.
Some of these plans have been cancelled for now, such as the Tusheti – Pankisi connection citing a seasonal window of only 2 months, but some plans went ahead. The Sh26 Zhinvali – Shatili road has been under renovation as part of this master plan for the mountain regions. Time for me to check it out.
The plan was not only to drive to Shatili, but also to explore a lesser known side track of the main artery to this region. A few years ago the Arkhoti Valley got connected by road through the Roshka Valley and across the 2968 meter high Pereval Bogovatchosgele pass. On the map it looked like a promising drive! Depending on the available time I would also try to reach the end of the Shatili – Mutso road at Khonischala or Ardoti.
A long day ahead, so I left Tbilisi at dawn via the S1 highway to Mtskheta and then the S3 to Kazbeg until Zhinvali. Filled up the tank in Zhinvali, as petrol is harder to find in the mountain regions. No risks here. As said, the 100 km long Sh26 to Shatili has been under renovation in the last few years. Essentially, by far most of the 58 km to Ghelisvake has been newly sealed with the exception of a few local parts. Most of the bridges are currently being renewed (some badly needed).
The first part was a very smooth ride along the Zhinvali Reservoir in splendid autumnal colors at early morning light. Mountain slopes covered in yellow-red colored trees. It took me just over 2 hours to cover 108 km from Tbilisi to the junction for Ghelisvake and Roshka. Pretty decent considering the various roadworks I encountered (mostly bridges). The road to Roshka is nothing more than a narrow unsealed track. Especially the first part is a steep and rough zig-zag climb away from the Aragvi River valley at 1450m to the base height of 1700m in 8 hairpins.
Roshkha Natural Monument
After the initial rise on the forested slopes the road flattens and gets easier to navigate. For any future travellers: you really need a 4WD to get up here, although I spotted an old Lada in Roshka that apparently made it. Roshka is the main village in the area and consists of around 20 houses (and a guesthouse!), located at 2067 metres above sea level. In the village you have to ford the Abudelauri River. Heading west out of the village the road gets quite rocky for a few hundred metres, until it flattens and opens up to the Roshka Natural Monument area. On the left hand side there is the majestic view of the Chaukhi Massif.
The Chaukhi Massif is a distinct and compact ridge with a small glacier on the northern side. Its highest point is the North Chaukhi peak of 3841 metres above sea level. The glacier once extended to Ghelisvake and the Aragvi River in the Pleistocene era. The erratically scattered boulders in the Abudelauri and Roshka Valleys are a result of the prehistoric glacier. Some are among the largest of such boulders in the world. In the alpine meadow below the glacier three small lakes can be found, called the Blue (Lurji), Green (Mtsvane) and White (Tetri) lakes.
Pereval Bogovatchosgele (a.k.a. Roshka Pass)
In July 2018 a newly constructed 25 kilometer road was opened to connect Roshka with villages in the Arkhoti valley: Akhieli and Amgha. Only a handful of families live here. The remote valley risked depopulation, which already happened with Chimgha village in recent years, so the government decided to create a proper lifeline. The valley also contains cultural heritage such as religious sites and fortifications.
After the splendid view of Chaukhi, the Sadzele Pass to Juta is straight ahead. At the moment there is only a hiking trail up to the 3060m pass but in the future a contested road might be constructed. At this point there are no works yet. I continued my way, turning to the right, towards Bogovatchosgele. After crossing the Roshka River, a steep hairpin climb followed, which took me quickly from 2350 metres to 2800 metres. From there it was an easy drive to Bogovatchosgele Pass.
The road is unsealed but relatively wide at most places and well prepared, given the extremely small size of the targeted population. There are however traces of strong waterstreams which already damaged the road at a few places. Hopefully seasonal repairs will be upheld, otherwise this will quickly prove to be a wasted investment. The road is unsealed but relatively wide at most places and well prepared, given the extremely small size of the targeted population. There are however traces of strong waterstreams which already damaged the road at a few places. Hopefully seasonal repairs will be upheld, otherwise this will quickly prove to be a wasted investment. At ~2968 metres the highest point is reached, slightly higher than the actual pass.
The views are stunning during the climb, alternating between views on Chaukhi and the barren and yellow alpine mountain slopes. At the ridge towards Bogovatchosgele it appears how high the road goes compared to the mountains on the east side. One can clearly see Mt. Tebulosmta, the highest mountain of the East Caucasus at 4494 metres, more than 32 kilometres away. Walking around at the pass, it is evident the seasonal change is coming. A strong freezing cold wind is blowing under a clear blue sky.
When going down the north side of the Pereval Bogovatchosgele the rocky Chimgha ridge can be seen. An impressive ridge with many colors. The road quickly winds down into the valley to join the Tsirilovantskali river which leads to Akhieli and Amgda. To the left is the hiking trail to Juta across the Arkhotistavi pass. Following the river Akhieli is reached fairly straightforward in 8 km. Amgda is just another 2km.
Unfortunately one can only get out of this valley by car the same way as coming in. During the return climb up Bogovatchosgele I got a flat tyre near the top. This reminded me how isolated the area is. Between Roshka and Akhieli I did not encounter a single car or human being. I managed to change the tyre pretty quickly and didn’t lose that much time, but it made me want to get out of here as well without having another backup tyre. In a straight – yet more careful – drive I headed back to the Sh26, the Shatili road, to ensure more traffic and people.
To Datvisjvari Pass and Shatili
Down at the Sh26 I quickly followed the road north. A kilometer of new concrete seal which turned into a dust road, and literally that in this dry weather. The remainder of the 42 kilometers to Shatili is unsealed. Here the road follows a side creek of the Aragvi river and makes a steady and easy climb to 2100 metres passing the villages Gudani, Biso, and Khakhmati. While I didn’t encounter any traffic to Arkhoti, the road to Shatili was quite busy with trucks. Obviously of the construction company involved in renovating the road. After Khakhmati the final climb to the 2989 metres high Datvisjvari Pass begins with 16 hairpins to the top.
Going down into the Argun river valley is easy and straightforward. I have to admit, this is one of the easiest high mountain passes in Georgia to drive, and one of the highest at that too. A lot of construction work was still going on, most specifically installing barriers, construction of water drains and building new bridges. The road surface has been flattened and gives a very solid ride.
Six kilometers down the pass the Lebaiskari Tower can be found directly next to the road. Similar in concept, it looks distinctively different from the Svan towers in Svaneti, a mountain region in the west of Georgia. The Vainakh towers are Chechen and Ingush in origin and can be found in this part of Georgia as well. Most of them are from medieval times and have any function from residential to military. Following the Argun river towards Chechnya, the valley narrows to a gorge near Guro village. Views into various side valleys are splendid with the autumn colors. Not long after that Shatili is reached.
Anatori and Mutso
A few kilometers north from Shatili are the Anatori Crypts, just 500 metres from the Russian/Chechen border. Here villagers from the nearby Anatori village (not existent anymore) exiled themselves during an epidemic to die in tombs they built before. At least, that is the general historic story. An unknown plague raged through the area hundreds of years ago. Once villagers noticed they got infected they went into isolation away from the village and put themselves to rest (and die) in the tombs so not to infect others. A sacrifice by putting other peoples interest first. Despite the rather dark history of this place, it is inspiring to find out about a history that connects so well with the current coronavirus pandemic.
From here it is possible to drive to Mutso (castle) but I ran out of time and the real desire to drive the extra kilometers and the climb up the hill to the castle. Another time. Maybe.
So, time to head back to Tbilisi. It was an exhaustive but incredibly beautiful day that I would not have wanted to miss.