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Wild, dramatic, mystical: A trip to age-old Khevsureti

We’ve seen the pictures, we’ve heard the stories. Now we want to go to Khevsureti. Does our car want to though? Sometimes I’m glad I can’t personally ask Vlad, our trusty Opel Astra. Khevsureti looks like a fascinating place. Medieval tower villages, pagan rituals and lots of myths, folktales and history, all perched away in the Caucasus, a stone’s throw away from Russia. On top of that, Khevsureti is known for being incredibly difficult to reach. The (long) road isn’t paved and leads over Datvisjvari pass (which apparently means Bear’s Cross) with its highest point located at a staggering 2.689M. From October to May, Shatili can’t be reached by vehicle at all as the snow blocks all access.

Looking back, I’m glad I hadn’t read the entry for the Khevsureti road on dangerousroads.com. A little excerpt:

The road to the summit, located in the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, is gravel, rocky, tippy and bumpy at times. (…) The pass gets usually blocked by snow in October and becomes passable again in May. Drive with care as this is a mountain road with hairpin curves and dangerous dropoffs. (…) 4×4 vehicle recommended. Stay away if you’re scared of heights. Expect a trail pretty steep. Be prepared, this road is not for the faint of heart or ill prepared. One mistake can have serious consequences.

Instead of reading this, we decided to trust the replies to our post in a Facebook group inquiring about driving there in a normal car. “Yeah, should be fine. As long as the weather is good”, “Drive slowly. Just try it, you can always turn around”. It may sound like we’re idiots just believing all this, but deep down we knew it was a bad idea. We simply really, really wanted to go. And so we set out for our next adventure, Khevsureti.

If you wanna be dumb, you gotta be tough

It’s a glorious day and we’re zooming from Tbilisi heading north, past Zhinvali reservoir. We’ve already seen the beautiful Ananuri complex before so we continue on without a break. The road splits off along the eastern side of the reservoir and not only is it still paved, it’s incredibly smooth. Even though it gets progressively worse, it is still doable without any issues and makes me fantasise: What if they built a new road just last week? A girl can dream. We’re driving into Tbilisi, past Barisakho, one of the biggest villages. The road is fine for a bit further, but soon splits off to the right where the struggle begins. At the point where this photo was taken, we had no idea what we were in for.

Datvisjvari pass (2690M) in good weather

Aydin is driving slowly along the unpaved road. It’s muddy and gradually climbing, with a steep, long drop off to the right. I’m taking deep breaths, we’re both nervous but trying to stay calm. After about half an hour of flaring tensions, my anticipations are confirmed. We drive around a bend, and boom! Digger! The road is so muddy that I sink in about 20 cm when I get out of the car. The digger is basically ripping up the road in front of us. The construction worker gestures us to wait so I get back in the car. 30 minutes pass.

The first hero of Khevsureti

We’re assuming the digger will smooth out the road for us again. 15 more minutes waiting. We get the go-ahead but the road still looks exactly the same as when we arrived. Aydin tries his best but after two meters we get stuck in the mud. The construction worker is a real hero, gets in our car, slams the gas pedal down and does not let go. It’s loud, it smells like the car is on fire, it’s… moving! Hurray! We thank him profusely and crack on. The worst must be over now.

The road is gently climbing some more but not as threatening as before. Not long and we reach the top of Datvisjvari pass. The road is a bit drier here. Slowly Aydin inches the car up, creeping around each bend. We dare not to breath and then, finally! We’ve made it to the top. So close to Khevsureti now.

On the other side we’re greeted by the next road construction site. Road? What road? We manage to traverse maybe 1KM of road before we have to wait again as the next two diggers rip massive chunks out of what is left of this so called “road”. After a while, they pat the mud back down again, where it now resembles something similar to a flat surface; we can pass.

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A golden glimpse of Khevsureti

Downwards is easier, but just as terrifying, with hair-raising drops. We pass a cool tower (Lebaiskari) – the first of many in Khevsureti – and some shrines. We take a rest where the road widens for a little while and for once, sheer rock face does not surround us. The harsh sun of the cloudless summer day is relenting, dropping behind the mighty peaks of the Caucasus. Warm light streams in from valleys to the west, transforming the landscape from a monotone green to a dance of light and shadows. On a distant hill in the direction we are heading, a shepherd travels with a herd of sheep. The source of the Arghuni river, merely a stream now, weaves gently through romantic meadows of wild flowers. It soon becomes a raging beast, carving the very gorge we are about to struggle through. This is the Khevsureti we came for, its a feast for the eyes.

From here the valley narrows and we’re driving down in to a gorge. Rocks everywhere, a steep drop and tight curves again. To our right Guro’s tears waterfall drops down from the rocks. I walk in front of the car while Aydin drives, moving the largest of the rocks out of the way that would destroy the underbelly of our trusty car. The trusty car that we have already tasked with far too much, as we have seen even 4×4’s struggle past us. Their drivers and passengers exchanging puzzling looks as they pass on by us.

Treacherous Datvisjvari Pass, Khevsureti in golden afternoon light with wet muddy steep road

Through the gorge, the going is tough. The road is incredibly steep and slippy, water runs everywhere. The switchbacks bring us ever closer to the tumbling edges. Steadily, we make it through and from this point onward, although the road is still in terrible condition, we can breath again. It’s pretty much flat all the way to Shatili. Only a few stream crossings serve to rattle our nerves.

Treacherous Datvisjvari Pass, Khevsureti in golden afternoon light

Khevsureti’s first medieval masterpiece

We drive around the last bend and the view instantly amazes us. Tower after tower perched next to each other on the hillside, behind the clear Arghuni river. Is this place even real? For about an hour, we just sit opposite this incredible scenery and stare in awe. Khevsureti is insane. Now it’s time to explore. Apart for us, there is just one travel group walking through the village.

Almost all of the buildings are accessible, a lot of them are connected, there are little alleys and tiny secret spaces everywhere. You never know what you will find around the next corner. We move further up and up through the towers until we stand in front of the church. There are stone shrines scattered all over the place. We walk along the road to “Upper Shatili”, a row of newly built houses, and try to get a view of the “Old Town”. Instead we get to enjoy a sweet view on Kacho tower up on the opposite hill. Unfortunately we didn’t find the way up to it while we were there, but photos from the top of it exist so please do let us know if you have more information on that!

Excuse the crappy photos of Kacho/Kachu castle remains, the light and weather was terrible for photography. That’s mountains for you though. You can somewhat make it out on the lower ridge, although it does just look like a rock.

I’m not the spiritual type but once you arrive in Khevsureti you can’t shake the mythical feeling. Shatili, the lost village Anaturi, Mutso, and the paths in-between them emanate a special atmosphere.

Sleeping in the middle of Shatili

There’s a not a great deal of space in between the few newer houses scattered around, but we manage to find a spot to park our car, pretty much opposite Shatili, across the river. We set up camp and prepare dinner, whilst gazing over the incredible medieval structures where we conjure images of Khevsureti warriors wearing chain mail surviving in a region cut off from Georgia for six months of the year. Just to bring home the warrior point: The Khevsurs marched into Tbilisi in 1915 clad in chain mail and other medieval dress demanding to join the Russian-Turkish war of 1915. Yes, you heard that right, a little over 100 years ago. You can read more of the fascinating history of the Khevsurs over here.

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It’s a bit awkward sleeping in a car right next to peoples homes but Georgians don’t seem to care all that much and no one bothers us. The awkwardness pays off though, because waking up to the view of Shatili glimmering in early morning light with a deep blue sky that emanates positivity, happiness and safety that encourages us to relax after what we can only describe as an ordeal; the previous days drive to Shatili.

The ancient medieval village of Shatili, Khevsureti standing tall in the early morning light

Anatori and the black death tragedy

Khevsureti is a wondrous land of ancient medieval throwbacks. Villages perched on enormous mountains, rivers raging in the valleys below. Snow capped peaks and dangerous passes mark the only entrance in to Khevsureti. Watch towers that have stood as a testament to the harsh climate for thousands of years. Castle ruins dot the landscape in precarious locations, which even now, with all the modern advancements, are seemingly impossible to access.

There’s more though; and it gets morbid. Anatori, long ago abandoned, was an ancient village sealed with a tragic fate in the 18th century. The black death, the Plague, somehow permeated the once barely accessible land and slowly began to infect the residents. The locals built small stone buildings a short walk from the main village at the confluence of the Arghuni and Andakistskali rivers. Then comes the sinister twist. The residents of Anatori realised the disease was contagious and spreading fast. It was decided that once an inhabitant was infected he or she would willingly vacate the village and live the remaining days of their lives slowly dying and rotting in a cold dark miserable vault. An act of true selflessness.

The courageous people of Khevsureti

Separating the crypts from the outside world are small windows, some protected with metal bars, some not. If you make the perilous journey you might want to think twice before peering in. The remains of the inhabitants of the cursed village of Anatori still reside. Bones, skulls and rags line the makeshift benches and piles of bones smoother the floor so much so that it vanishes below. Gazing in one can feel the cool air streaming by, almost as if the souls of the dead are passing right through you. The story of the plight of those villagers is both captivating and harrowing at the same time. It’s quite uncomfortable to witness.

Whilst there we heard a story of an old Russian lady or maybe a witch who frequently crossed the border and stole skulls from the crypts. That’s apparently why the crypts are now sealed up.

A police barrier in Shatili protecting the border post along the Georgian Russian border

We take a walk a little further up the river. On a hill across the river from Anatori is the Georgian border post; one hundred metres downstream is Russia. We wonder how many people have ever crossed the border here, the gorge sides are incredibly steep and the river is not one you would attempt to navigate. Another 100 metres down the road and we pass the entrance road for the border post which is clearly off limits. We decide to head back to Shatili and scramble once more around the fascinating towers and ruins.

Traffic news at the guesthouse

After exploring Shatili a little more we head back to our car for dinner, but then we pass a guesthouse that looks like it’s serving food and of course eating khachapuri and Georgian salad with a beer is much more appetising than instant noodles so we immediately grab a table. Suddenly we hear someone else speaking English with a German accent and we immediately search for the fellow traveller. Andrea is indeed German, staying in Shatili for a few nights in this very guesthouse. We get chatting and she describes in vivid detail the terrifying journey in to Shatili & Khevsureti due to the state of the road. She’s preaching to the choir. Then she drops a bomb.

Last night there was a landslide. The road, in parts, is in ruins. They’re not sure when it’s going to be fixed. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. Well, that’s fucked our plans. Datvisjvari pass is the only way in, and out of Khevsureti by car. We can’t quite imagine what the road looks like when it’s actually impassible. It’s not like it was in good condition when we passed, far from it, but at least it was dry.

Hiking to Mutso, the second medieval masterpiece of Khevsureti

We had planned to walk to Mutso early the next day and then drive out of Khevsureti in the afternoon. Since we’re trapped here now, we decide to have a couple of beers with Andrea. I do envy her when she gets to retreat to her private room whilst we stuff ourselves back into the car, but that’s the price you pay for freedom, eh?

With heavy heads and already well into the next day, the three of us start our journey to Mutso. It’s flat all the way through the Mutso-Ardoti valley, which is lovely when you’re hungover, but it’s also a cool 25KM round trip. The landscape is beautiful and chatting with Andrea makes the kilometres pass quickly. We walk the same way as yesterday, along the dirt road to Anatori, but this time turn right and continue towards Mutso, another fascinating medieval village, 1880 metres above sea-level. Unlike Shatili, Mutso is supposedly abandoned and we’re very excited to explore it while we’re venturing deeper and further into the Caucasus.

We keep on walking along the Andakistskali river, past some farmhouses where we’re joined by a friendly dog, and an abundance of Pagan shrines. I find it fascinating how the Khevsurs still live so remote. Most leave the area in winter but a guide told me that a few families remain, completely blocked off from the outside world.

The hidden gem

Several 4x4s pass us with tourists on board; I guess the slow way to Mutso gets more and more out of fashion. It feels strange to see one big car after the other zooming down the road in the midst of all this wilderness. We enjoy our slow approach, especially with our heads a little clouded. We approach a bend and as we corner it, a tower appears, perched precariously high up on a rock above us. You cannot see the village until you’ve turned around the very last bend, it’s completely hidden from our direction. We’ve made it!

Lone watch tower of Mutso fortress high above the raging river in the valley below

We look up in awe to the four towers and roughly 30 fortified buildings on the hill. Mutso looks absolutely amazing, and definitely a lot bigger and higher than we expected. Khevsureti contains some incredible architecture. Before we tackle the ascent, we head for a coffee and a surprise snickers at the local café/snack station that a savvy local woman has set up at the foot of Mutso. Always good to be the first one! It also comes with an adventurous toilet with a view on the raging river right below you.

It looks like it will start to rain so we gather our strengths and start walking up the hill. To our surprise, most of the building are in pristine condition. Instead of abandoned, crumbling ruins, we find renovated buildings all over. The complex renovation project even won the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards. Three families have settled here permanently as a result, although by the time I’m writing this it might well be more already.

Mutso village fortress precariously on a mountain top

Medieval Mutso to ourselves

After we’ve made it to the top of the settlement, we start running around like excited puppies, squeezing in and out of buildings, running over rooftops and jumping from structure to structure. We have the whole village to ourselves, with a marvelous view over the valley. The plague hasn’t spared Mutso either, we realise, as we discover burial vaults here too, and an age-old overgrown graveyard high up on the hillside. We would love to stay here all day but unfortunately it’s getting quite late and the sky is brewing with dark clouds. Reluctantly, we make our way back down and back to Shatili. A long, long way.

We dodge the worst of the rain and no other dangers present themselves as we make our way back to Shatili. We do secretly hope that some random 4×4 will stop and offer us a lift back, alas, none do. A cow in a puddle did attempt to deny us access though.

A cow standing in a puddle blocking the road in Khevsureti

We’ve heard on the grapevine that the road might be driveable again. We decide that tomorrow we should attempt to leave the valley and that maybe we should split the journey in two. We could attempt to get to the bottom of the pass this evening, before dark and then have a crack at the pass in the very early morning. Here’s a few last minute impressions of Shatili before we leave.

Escape from the forbidden valley

It has stopped raining but the valley is full of clouds, there’s at most two hours of light left in the day. It should be enough time for us to get to Lebaiskari tower, where we know there is some space for us to park before the really rough part of the road starts. We’ve read the weather should be fairly decent in the morning, hence us wanting to get up the pass as soon as possible, because later in the day it will begin to rain again.

Our poor car trudges slowly along the muddy road, this time with seemingly less obstacles. Only once does Caroline have to get out of the car and remove some rocks. We make it to Lebaiskari tower with zero incidents, this part of the road was a lot less daunting in this direction. We’ve got a bit more confidence now and are ready to tackle the pass next. Before the final struggle, we watch the sunset over the ancient and mysterious Arghuni valley. Thick fog rolls in to the valley and before you know it we can’t see a few meters in front of us. We try to catch some sleep but of course that’s naive. We both lie wide awake all night, contemplating what’s going to happen next.

Sunset in the Arghuni gorge near Shatili, at the foot of Datvisjvari pass

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An early start to escape Khevsureti

We decide to set off around 7AM, the valley is still full of fog and the road covered in puddles. It doesn’t look great in all honesty. I’m expecting disaster. As soon as we start driving, the rain starts. We make it up the first few switchbacks without much trouble. Aydin is determined. No sign of any landslides yet.

But it gets worse, with each corner the road becomes muddier and muddier. The next bit of “road” always looks worse than the last and each time as Aydin braces himself and hits the gas to push through the mud, I expect we will get stuck. The next corner we glide around and loose control, skidding near to the edge before coming to a halt. We look around at the road up and it looks ridiculously steep and muddy. Aydin reverses, straightens up and attempts the climb. We make it about half way before slowly stopping. Aydin hits the gas as much as possible trying to break free of the mud but it’s not happening. We pathetically slide back down to flatter road where we both look at each other with deep worry, what are we going to do?

We sit there for a short while, before a 4×4 Lada comes racing down from the top of the pass. Upon spotting us they immediately slam the brakes on and inquire what’s wrong. With barely any common language we explain our situation and of course the immensely kind Georgians insist on making our problem, their problem.

The final push (or pull)

Attempt number 1: Kind Georgian tries to drive our car himself up the steep incline. He tries three times, getting a little further than Aydin, but not far enough. Our two wheel drive just cannot handle these conditions in this terrain. As we get stuck, our wheels spin, mud is flying everywhere covering all of our windows so we can barely see outside. Needless to say, adding to the extreme peril we are already in, considering this is a high mountain pass.

Attempt number 2: The Georgians regroup and decide that the Lada will tow us up. Surely not? It’s barely any bigger than our car. It’s not quite that simple though as the tow bar is on the back of our car. We change cars, jumping into the Lada. The driver giggles at us, he doesn’t seem to share our dread. It’s a normal day for him.

The guy driving our car manages to turn it around with about an 10CM space either side of the car, we attach the towing cable and off we go. It’s a struggle but after the second attempt we make it over the notorious incline. We’re still nowhere near the top of the pass and fearing the worse we ask if our chauffeur can take us to the top. Of course, he is happy to oblige, we even offer him some money which he shakes his head at profusely.

It’s a long way to the top

For the next 30 minutes we watch in horror via the mirrors as our car slips and slides all over the place, inching uncomfortable close to the edge every time we go around a corner. On the last stretch before the top of the pass we encounter a digger who is flattening out the road. We wait and watch it reconstruct a large section of the road, of which we categorically would not have been able to pass before hand. A few minutes later we claim the prize at the top of the pass, the rain fizzles out and sense of calm washes over the mountains. Subdued green pastures present themselves from the less traumatic side of Datvisjvari. The fog begins to rise and we contemplate the final part of the journey.

We vigorously thank and shake hands with our trusty Georgian saviour, who still refuses any sort of payment. We’re eternally grateful to these kind men who went out of their way to save our stupid asses. Maybe they enjoyed the fact that we attempted the journey ourselves, welcoming the adventurous spirit. Who knows.

Dreaming of tarmac

We wave goodbye and slowly ride down the south side of Datvisjvari pass. Nothing phases us now, nothing can be as bad what we’ve already experienced and before we know it, we’re out of harms way at the bottom. We drive all the way back to Zhinvali Reservoir without speaking. The weather gets better with every kilometre and by the time we get to the shimmering turquoise reservoir we’re baking hot. We stop in a lay by and take stock of our car. Pieces of plastic are hanging off everywhere. We yank them off and stuff them in the back of the car. All the bumpers are trashed but luckily the rain washed away much of the dirt. It feels like the car is going to fall to pieces any minute now. How could it possibly take what we’ve put it through?

Spoiler alert: We made it a few thousand more kilometres, all the way to Kyrgyzstan and the Chinese border. We’re pretty sure our car should be the face of Opel’s advertising campaigns.

The quest for comfort pizza

There’s only one thing to do now: drive back to Tbilisi and get a pizza from Dominos. We’ve not showered for three days now so we’ll have a wash in the toilets because we’re not even taking a break before the next adventure. This evening we are driving in to Kakheti to stay somewhere along Gombori pass.

Our wrecked car with missing pieces after the treacherous journey in to Shatili

In the next few days we will explore as much as Kakheti as possible and hike to Black Rock Lake in Lagodekhi National park. All depending on the state of our car, of course.

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

There are two main options to fly into Georgia: Kutaisi or Tbilisi. Kutaisi is the budget option but marshrutkas to Shatili go from Tbilisi so you’ll have to go to the capital one way or another. 

You can try hitchhiking but you might only get as far as the bottom of Datvisjvari pass. Most of the traffic comes from tour guides, you’ll be quite lucky to find a local. 

Marshrutkas go from Tbilisi to Shatili and back twice a week from the lower exit of Didube station.

Tbilisi to Shatili: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 9am.

Shatili to Tbilisi: Thursdays and Sundays at 12PM.

We don’t know if the pandemic has affected the schedules. You can try and ring these people for more information (these numbers were found on a sign at the Marshrutka station): 

  • Temuri: +995599272904
  • Malkhazi: +995595558776

There is no way to visit during winter. The road usually becomes impassable in October and opens again in May.

If you fancy a challenge and love remote areas, you can hike from Omalo to Shatili within 5 days – from towers to towers. Check the details over at Trekking in the Caucasus.

Things to to

  • View the tombs at Anatori
  • On the way to Anatori, there are some meadows by the river where you can sit and marvel at a distinctly blue cliffside
  • Explore the towers of Shatili and Mutso
  • Continue to walk to the village Ardoti, about 5km after Mutso
  • Find a way to Kachu fortress
  • Stop at Lebaiskari tower and Guro’s tears waterfall on the way to Shatili

Accommodation

There seems to be a campsite by the river now – Niade-Shatili Camping. You can check them out on Facebook and contact them there.

There are guest houses in the towers in Shatili now, which will make for an incredible stay:

We’ve seen at least 5 other guest houses in Shatili. Most of them can be booked via Booking.com.

The village of Ardoti has a guest house that looks super lovely

Pro tip

Unless you’ve got a 4×4, take the Marshrutka, seriously.

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