A day in Georgia’s Khevsureti region

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 the 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 Mt Borbola.

Connectivity versus eco-tourism

The interconnectivity between the northern remote mountain valleys was 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 that 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 te mountain regions. Time for me to check it out.

Road to Khevsureti and the Roshka and Arkhoti Valleys
Road to Khevsureti and the Roshka and Arkhoti Valleys

The plan was not only to drive to Shatili, but also to explore a lesser known side track of the main artery to the region. A few years ago the Arkhoti Valley became connected by road via Roshka Valley and 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 the fork at 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, as petrol in the mountain regions is harder to find. 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 is a very smooth ride next to the Zhinvali Reservoir with splendid autumnal views at early morning light. Mountain slopes covered in yellow-red colored trees. It took me just over 2 hours to cover the 108 km to reach the junction to Ghelisvake and Roshka. Pretty decent considering the various roadworks I encountered (mostly bridges). The road to Roshka has been in existence for many decades. It is however nothing more than a single car wide unsealed dirt track. Especially the first part is a tough 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 slope 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 which is the main village in the area, consists of not more than 2 dozen houses (and a gueshouse!) and is located at 2067 metres above sea level. In the village the road goes through a creek, as well as farther up the road to Arkhoti. Heading west out of the village it gets quite rocky for a few hundred metres, until the road flattens and opens up to the Roshka Natural Monument area. On the left hand side there is a majestic view of the Chaukhi Massif.

The Chaukhi Massif is a distinct and compact ridge with a small glacier on the northern side. Its heighest 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. 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 a couple of small lakes can be found, called the Blue, Green and White 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. Just a handful of families live here, but as the remote valley risked depopulation, which already happened with the village Chimgha in recent years, the government decided to create a better 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 there might be a (contested) road. At this point there are no works yet. I continued my the road, turning to the right. After crossing the creek, a steep hairpin climb follows, which takes me quickly from 2350 metres to 2800 metres, the head of the ridge which the road follows before reaching the Bogovatchosgele Pass.

Stunning landscapes

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 that damaged the road already at a few places. Hopefully seasonal repairs will be upheld, otherwise this will quickly prove to be a wasted investment. The road reaches its highest point at ~2968 metres, slightly higher than the actual pass.

The views are stunning during the climb, alternating between views on Chaukhi and the high barren and yellow slopes. At the ridge it appears how high the road goes compared to the eastern mountains. One can see all the way to 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.

Arkhoti Valley

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, and as opposed to hiking in this region, one can only get out by car the same way as coming in. During the return climb up Bogovatchosgele I got a flat tyre near the top. Which 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 bound. A kilometer of new concrete road after which the road turned into a dust road. And literally at 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 takes 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, taking 16 hairpin curves to the top.

Argun Valley

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 is 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 one can see the Lebaiskari Tower 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 down 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 400 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. An unknown plague raged through the area hundreds of years ago. Once villagers noticed they got infected they went 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 one can travel to Mutso (castle) but I ran out of time and lust to drive the extra kilometers and the climb up the hill to the castle. Another time. Maybe.

Time to head back to Tbilisi. It was an exhaustive but incredibly beautiful day that I would not have wanted to miss.

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