Tusheti: Dartlo, Chesho & Kvavlo

Trip Start Aug 17, 2013
Trip End Dec 10, 2013

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Flag of Georgia  , Akhmetis Raioni,
Friday, September 13, 2013

September 13, 2013

Zemo Omalo to Dartlo, 12km, hike and hitch
Natela's Guest House 50 lari pp including 3 meals

After a customary substantial Tushetian breakfast, we got on our way.

The dirt road made a small climb out of the village after which we followed the jeep-track on a long descent to the river valley far below. Pine and mixed forests hugged the steep slopes around us. We then started a long strenuous but beautiful hike up and up.  

We got passed by one army truck. There was little traffic. In an upper valley, the road split and we asked a man foraging for mushrooms which fork went to Dartlo. He pointed to the high road which winds its way up to the top of the ridge. There stood an idyllic lone guesthouse, perfect for people looking for solitude.

We continued walking up for several km then a jeep passed. He went around the hairpin and stopped a hundred or so meters from us. He waited for us to walk up. Then, the jeep driver got out and offered us a lift. It was too tempting and we took him up on it. It was another 2 kilometers or so of steep switchbacks and muddy stretches to the ridge crest. We were spared. We had him drop us off when the descent into the next valley began. We hiked the last 5 kilometers along the road with the sheer drop-off to the river on our right. We picked delicious wild raspberries as we went. 

Then, Dartlo came into view across the river. The sun hit its towers just right, the slate roofs of the village homes reflecting like mirrors in the sun. The dirt track we were following reached the valley bottom and river level across from Dartlo. 

We crossed the bridge then followed a small path to a grassy knoll where remnants of a Russian church stood, the bell still hung in its open archway. Next to it were twelve stone chairs, the ancient site of the village court, the place where the elders sat in a circle and decided the fate of the accused.

We crossed a tributary stream over a small wooden pedestrian bridge then climbed stone stairs into Dartlo. We asked a guy walking by where the guesthouse was. The guy said that every house is a guesthouse. We clarified that we were looking for Natela Guesthouse. He walked us across a backyard and through a gate then pointed to a house in the middle of the village. We walked over to the house he had pointed at. It had two signs, "Guest House" and "Wolne Pokoje". We did not want Guest House Wolne Pokoje. We wanted Natela Guesthouse. It turned out that we were at the right guesthouse all along. Wolne Pokoje merely translates to "Rooms Available". Natela is that home's owner.

Natela turned out to be a lively lady who has two rooms to rent out in her traditional Tusheti stacked slate house with wooden balcony. The kitchen and bathroom are on the first level and bedrooms are on the second level. Our room had four beds and rustic cabinets that were made by her husband's grandfather. The wall carpet was made by her husband's grandmother.

We quickly settled in. It was about 2:30 and we were hungry. Natela busied herself in her kitchen. She showed us wooden bowls and utensils that her grandparents had made, she told us with pride. We enjoyed a wonderful savory vegetable soup with puri (bread) sliced tomato and cucumber with chopped cilantro and onions, katchapuri, the cheese filled pancakes, and a unique Tusheti cheese, Gudis Kveli, which is very salty.
Afterwards, Dave went on exploring the village while I took a shower. It took about 30 minutes for the water in the boiler to be heated with a wood fire. Natela keeps the rustic place spotlessly clean.

Dartlo is a beautiful and serene village. Huge herds of sheep graze high above on the steep mountainsides and the only sounds we hear are the river rushing through the narrow valley and the chirping of crickets.

Late in the afternoon, a couple from Israel arrived. They were planning some trekking. He was a bit arrogant and I didn't like the way he addressed Natela, without respect. No "please" or "thank you" crossed his lips. A little "attitude" I call it. His girlfriend seemed sweet and only slightly submissive. We wondered how long it would be before she realized he was a jerk. Then we learned they had been together for a few years already.

As the sun moved behind the mountain, at around 7:30 pm, it became chilly but seemed warmer than the prior evenings in Omalo.
The meals were served on the covered patio just outside the kitchen. Dinner was another elaborate and wholesome spread. And no meal is complete without a few swigs of potent cha cha (a grappa of sorts) to warm the belly. Natela made sure we had enough of everything. Because this area is so isolated, and consequently has no regular transportation service, we asked Natela for advice. We wanted to stay here for three nights then travel back down to Telavi. It so happens, two of her sons drive jeep taxis and she would make sure one of them would give us a ride back to Telavi on Monday. She filled my hot water bottle before we left for bed.


September 14, 2013 
Hike: Dartlo to Chesho and Back

We slept like babies. It was a beautiful sunny morning. Natela was busy preparing our breakfast. She always has a smile on her face. I can tell she loves cooking and caring for people.  But first things first, to warm our bodies on the crispy morning, she served us local cha cha on our empty stomachs. What the heck, in Tusheti, do as the Tushetians do, I thought to myself as I downed a shot of the potent spirit

I am crazy about her home-made blackberry jam. As she poured us another cup of "Tusheti Tea" made from sweet wildflowers, she pointed to the steep mountainside across from us. That is where she picked the berries, she told us. She offered to take me berry picking up there. The bread served was a bit stale. I'm sure she gets fresh bread from Telavi when her sons come to visit.

We decided to hike 5 kilometers to Chesho. We followed the Pirikiti River valley. It is such a peaceful place. In the village of Chesho, we spotted piles and piles of fleece from the shorn sheep. Dave went up to take a closer look while I basked in the sun. We stopped to watch a pair of guys with a horse pulling a rudimentary plow harvesting a potato patch. There are a small number of similar fenced-off vegetable patches dotted here and there near the villages.

We returned around 4:00, showered and played some cards. Natela brought us a Fanta bottle with wine. She makes sure we are content.

At around 7 pm, we came down for dinner. Natela placed a long wooden bowl on the table with khinkali (Georgian dumplings) filled with potato and cheese and served with minced garlic and, of course, butter. We usually skip the extra butter or fat served with many meals since the Georgian dishes already contain plenty without adding more. Also served was a tasty eggplant dish and broccoli with cheese sauce, all very delicious.

Stav and Tamir (Mia), another Israeli couple had arrived. They were trekking from village to village. They explained that it is a month long holiday period in Israel and the time everyone is free to travel. Since many Muslim countries do not welcome Israeli’s, most go to Georgia, India or Brazil during this period. Georgia is a short flight and perfect for those that like to trek. The friendly polite youngsters were a pleasant contrast to the couple who had their room the night before.

September 15, 2013 
Dartlo -  Dave hiked to Kvavlo while I got to know the village ladies

Dave hiked high up the steep mountain behind Dartlo to the series of defense towers (Koshkis). The ones I had seen up close in Omalo and here in Dartlo are enough for me.
....He hiked up the steep hill to Kvavlo to discover the abandoned crumbling buildings by the upper towers were not totally abandoned. While most structures were empty and in disrepair, a few were being maintained and lived in. 

There was a high knoll which looked like an altar area for an outdoor church and a cross. A few empty beer and cha cha bottles were strewn around. On closer inspection, the 'cross’ turned out to be a wood post with a rusty bracket, the type used to hold a satellite dish. Dave was looking for the pagan altar site that is said to be near. This wasn't it. He hiked further up the mountain and found a burial area but still no altar. After exploring a bit more, he gave up and came back down the mountain looping around through another small village with a few houses, a sheep pen, and a stacks of straw.

I spent a wonderful morning communicating with Natela. Natela keeps up a notebook with new English words she learns. We started with English lessons. She was excited and read to me from a small booklet about the Tusheti culture. Her pronunciation was pretty good. Next she told me about her "medicine" cabinet in the form of bunches of dried herbs she gathered from the mountains. I didn't get all the names of the herbs and ailments they cured but I got the gist of it. This information is passed on from generation to generation. She had several types of Tusheti herbal tea too, hung up to dry on strings. Every time she needed some, she loosened a few stems, rinsed them and steeped them like regular tea.
She asked if I could show her pictures of my home. I have about 1700 pictures on my iPod of our travels. She was glued to them and soon we were joined by her curious neighbor ladies. They too couldn't get enough of the images. The elaborate facial jewelry of the women in India got the biggest reaction. They thought it pretty strange.

Natela's son had shown up with bread from town. He planned to spend the night and drive us the next day, we were happy. First he wanted 200 lari for the trip and only drop us at  Alvani crossing. It is another 22 km from Qvemo Alvani to Telavi. But we reached a happy medium at 60 lari per person and will be dropped off at Tushishvilli Guesthouse in Telavi and we all hoped for him that he would find 2 more passengers. At the end of this month, most people will leave their high mountain homes and settle in the lowlands for the winter and return in in the spring.

Ziv and Naama, the third couple from Israel in as many nights, arrived and joined us for dinner. They too were very appreciative of Natela's culinary skills. A couple of swigs of cha cha were followed by another great meal which concluded with another glass of cha cha, hot for me with sugar, the only way I can stomach it. No wonder we sleep so well. Naama saw the knitted wool socks Natela had on display and asked if she had more. Natela brought out a small box of hats and socks of various sizes and colors. Many women here knit but Natela’s knots were tighter and done more skillfully. Naama bought several pair as gifts for friends. I bought a pair and asked Natela if she had the kind with bottoms sewn on. She ran inside and returned with pair that fit perfectly. And she wouldn't let me buy these. These were a gift, she insisted.

We played some cards (Dave won) and fell asleep only to awake to fierce thunder storm.
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