Tucked away deep in the Arghuni Gorge in the far north-east of Georgia lies the medieval village of Shatili. Constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries, this remote fortress complex was designed to defend the Khevsureti people from ever-impending Dagestani and Chechnyan attacks. These brave, stoic highland warriors defied amalgamation by the Kakhetian monarchy, choosing to retain their autonomy and way of life on their own terms. So they built Shatili.
Over time the stone towers grew taller, elaborate passageways and labyrinths connecting the fortified walls for augmented safety. When invading armies approached, the villagers would simply retreat inside, the warriors standing braced at small openings near the tower tops to stave off intruders with steel-tipped arrows.
Cut off by the precipitous 2,736m Datvisjvari pass, Shatili is only accessible between May and October, clogged with snow and ice during the long, cold winter. Centuries ago, when much more snow fell in the region, the mountain stronghold was even more unassailable. This fascinating mix of historical appeal and adventurous approach set my mind on making a trip. Not by car though, but by foot.
A 100km journey following the fast-flowing Pshavis Aragvi River, gradually gaining altitude as the road carves farther into the mountains. I decided to go alone, wanting to meet locals, learn about life up there and practice my steadily improving Georgian. I was told by bus drivers at Tbilisi’s Didube station that the pass was open, and that public transport was already going through. Green light.
As the marshrukta bumbled north to Zhinvali – the start of my walk – I flicked through my set of Georgian vocabulary flashcards. Pitiful, yet effective hand-drawn pictures helped remind me of English translations. I was determined to communicate better with people, aiming to move beyond simple exchanges and functional language to more in-depth conversations. ‘THUMP!’ What the hell was that? The marshrukta screeched to a halt. The back doors had come loose, a pothole enough to send my backpack flying out.
Fortunately nothing was damaged. Could’ve been a really shit start to what promised to be an epic journey. Reloading my pack, the driver slammed the rickety doors even harder than before, cursing the design and apologizing in the same breath. One of the things about Georgia that reminds me of places like India, Nepal, Peru and Bolivia is the much-to-be-desired, comical, often dangerous quality of the driving, roads and vehicles. It definitely makes for interesting trips, despite literally keeping you on the edge of your seat and getting you to wonder why you didn’t write your will sooner.
I started late on the first day, and after a couple hours of steep hiking, it was time to find a spot to camp. A snaking path took me to banks of the Aragvi, rushing into the Zhinvali Reservoir. Night had already fallen and I needed to collect water for the evening. Tramping through the mud with my headlamp I saw someone walking my direction, also with a headlamp. It was man from a nearby village, looking for a friend that had apparently gone wandering off drunk.
”Hello! Ah, I thought you were my friend. I can’t find him. What are you doing here?”
”I’m walking to Shatili. My tent’s up there.”
”Ah yes, I see it. How many are you? Two? Three?”
”No, I’m alone.”
”Yes, I like traveling by myself. Is the water OK to drink here?”
”Yes, yes. It’s clean. You can drink it. Do you have food?”
”I do, thank you.”
”Mmmm, no, I don’t.”
”OK! I’ll go get some vodka for you at my house and come back soon.”
”Ah, that’s very kind of you!”
”Be careful here my friend. There are dogs all over the place.”
”Really? Are they dangerous?”
”Yes! Very dangerous! They are hungry and could come to your tent to find food.”
”OK, I’ll be careful. Thanks again.”
Well gee, it didn’t look too bad, and dogs could only be heard far in the distance. Plus I had no meat and all my food was sealed in sachets or wrappers. I cooked up some 2-minute noodles – that great university as well as camping life classic – waiting eagerly for a hoot of vodka, which alas…never came.
Picking up the path back onto the main road the next morning I encountered a very defensive, scary-looking dog, who began charging. Irakli, the owner, quickly subdued the barking canine and invited me to his humble farmhouse. Flavored with a bit of risk, these were the kinds of interactions I was searching for. And what a wonderful feeling it is when a complete stranger beckons you inside their home.
”Shatili is a very beautiful place. You will love it there. It’s amazing that you’re walking! I also used to go on adventures like this. I miss those days.”
”Yes, it looks great there.” A cat lay curled up catching z’s on a swinging chair. In the background pretty rows of purple and yellow flowers blossomed in bright green grass. No other people could be heard.
”Let me get you some cheese and bread for the road.”
”Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. Do you have a wife and children?” Wondering why the place was so empty on a Tuesday morning.
”Yes…my wife is down in that village visiting a friend. I have three girls, but they are married now and live in Tbilisi. I don’t see them much.”
”Ah, but it’s not far to Tbilisi.”
”No, it isn’t. But they’re usually too busy.”
”I’m sorry to hear. How is life on the farm?”
”It’s peaceful…I like it. I grow vegetables and fruit. But there aren’t many people living here these days. Everyone is going to the city. It makes it difficult to keep things going.”
Having done about 10kms the previous evening, I aimed to do about 30 per day, hoping to reach Shatili by Thursday night. Walking through the valley was stunning, mineral water came pouring out of man-made fountains every few kilometers, flocks of sheep bleered along the pastures and birds chirped through the air in search of fresh nectar. Well into the day I ran into some men in overalls fixing up the road. I greeted them with a big smile and shook each of their hands, introducing myself and asking their names. This is great habit to get into on the road, it immediately breaks the ice…well most of the time at least.
”You’re walking to Shatili?!” One of the men exclaimed incredulously.
”Yes. It’s an adventure.”
”It’s very far. 69 kilometers.” The youngest in the group began concernedly sketching the number into the sand, unsure that I’d grasped how far it actually was.
”Ah yes, I understand. 69 kilometers. Thank you. I need another two and a half days or so to get there. Slowly, slowly. I have time.”
”Yeah, alone. Well not completely. Nature is with me.” The men all smiled in agreement and wished me well for the journey ahead.