A Slightly Inebriated Journey Across One of the Most Dangerous Roads in the World
In my numerous trips to Georgia, I have been to practically every corner of the country, save one: Tusheti. Considered to be one of the most remote places on earth, Tusheti is surrounded by some of the tallest and most rugged mountains of the greater Caucasus with Russia’s Dagestan and Chechnya to the north and Georgia’s wine country Khakheti to the south. The only road, a long skinny strip of dirt that climbs up and down several mountains, is blocked off by the Georgian government from October to May due to hazardous conditions.. It was now mid September and I was situated in a 4x4 with newfound friends on our way to said destination.
We had just pulled out of the last town, Kvermo Alvani, before the mountains. My group consisted of my friends Teresa and Remi, a girl named Nadine, a former coworker of mine named Yulia, our driver Jomari, and a Russian couple, Lena and Alexi. We had just started what was supposed to be a 5 hour drive, but as we were soon to realize, that would not be the case. Only five minutes into the ride, we came to a little house along the road and stopped. “Just two minutes,” insisted Yulia as she and the driver exited the vehicle. Obediently, we waited, expecting to be moving shortly… but we didn’t. Apparently two minutes actually meant 30, and that ‘one’ stop actually meant four. (I knew math was never my strong point). But anyway though, after about two hours, we were 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) further down the road with a car full of tomatoes, bread, and fruit. So I guess it could be called a fair trade off.
Very soon, our road turned to dirt, becoming narrower and increasingly more rugged. Jomari turned back and told us that he had previously been a shepherd in Tusheti and therefore knew every tree, hill, rock, dog, and person in the region. ‘Better you drive than me.’I thought, for I knew none of that. Teresa checked her map to see how much of the journey was still ahead. “It says just 80 milometers, but 4 hours time.” She said, sounding a bit surprised. We began to speculate why that could be, but very soon, we found out. The road started to snake upwards, twisting and turning up the side to the mountain. The path began to narrow even more until it was just wide enough for one car. I looked out the window. To the left of us stood a mountain wall of rock and dirt, while to the other was a steep cliff. If we were to fall, it would probably lead to certain death. The road, by this point, had become so uneven that the car began rocking back and forth like a ship at sea as we moved forward.
Yulia began describing the place as a fairy tale, but although it looked pretty, the views of the road ahead made us wonder whether it was going to be one of those nice fairy tales or some kind of dark Grimm Brothers one. Remi (Polish guy with a mustache), at this point, cracked open a bottle of cognac and began to drink. Meanwhile Teresa popped two Dramamine and began to nod off. Alexi, on the other hand, leaned out the window to film the ride up. (Thanks to him, we have our video below).
“Look at all the beautiful waterfalls!” exclaimed Yulia, pointing out all the natural landmarks and insisting we stop at each one. Jomari, on the other hand, pointed out the grave sites of everyone he knew that died on the road. A bit nervously I looked around to see if anyone else was aware of the stark contrast in their perspectives. ‘Just one road,’ I thought. ‘All we need to do is get through it.’ However, as we began to stop every 15 minutes, I soon came to realize that we wouldn’t be getting through it any time soon. I couldn’t really complain though, as the views were quite spectacular. Eventually, we continued onto our journey… until something completely unexpected happened.
Just as the top of the overpass was in sight, our van pulled over to the side of the road, as did another vehicle that was behind us. Jomari turned off the car’s engine and turned around with a melancholy look on his face. Pointing to a memorial site, he told us that four of his friends died here just last year in a car accident. Right on the side of the road near a very steep cliff was a black stone with pictures and names of four men etched into it. Jomari then exited the vehicle and was joined by the driver and two passengers from the car behind. One carried a bottle of homemade liquor and the other, a glass. Together, they poured it to the top and placed the drink onto the memorial. Then, to my surprise, they pulled out a bottle of grape vodka (chacha) and each took a shot out of a drinking horn to honor the four men. ‘Ok,’ I thought, ‘Just one drink. He knows what he’s doing. We should be fine…’ But then we were all asked to sit down at the table.
Food was laid out for everyone, and once we were all seated, Jomari stood up and refilled the drinking horn. He gave a long speech thanking us all for coming to Tusheti, then promptly downed the alcohol and passed the horn to the person next to him. The next man did the same, making a long-winded all-encompassing speech capped off by a shot of vodka. Then came the next person in our group, our cameraman Alexi. Jumping right into the game, he took the horn, toasted to people becoming friends and not being divided by politics, then took his shot as well. We then all proceeded to take our turns (myself toasting for a fun and SAFE rest of the ride), until it finally got to Nadine. First, she refused the alcohol, but Jomari ‘reassured’ her by saying that if she drinks less, he (the driver) would have to drink more in order to make sure the bottle is finished. Quickly Nadine conceded to the well-being everyone’s life and drank the intended shot.
Roughly 30 minutes later, the food and the bottles were finished. Doing the math in my head, I figured it had been about 4-5 shots per person. When we all stood up, I stumbled a bit. Te alcohol was starting to take effect. I turned to Teresa and asked how she was, considering for her that this was all mixed with the Dramamine. “I’m ready to sleep,” she replied. We both then looked over to Jomari who was walking perfectly normal. I guess he knows how to drink and drive well. Everyone piled into the car and we set off for the overpass. ‘At least there are no more stops,’ I thought to myself as I slumped down into my seat. Unfortunately though, I was wrong.
We reached the overpass of 3000m (2 miles) about 15 minutes later, and to my dismay, Jomari stopped the car again and go out. His friends in the car behind us got out as well and they all got into a circle. One of the men motioned for us to join, and (trying to be the gentlemen) Alexi and I decided to take one for the team and go over. ‘Not another drink,’ I wished internally as I looked at the steep cliffs all around us. But before I could finish, I saw another bottle in the hands of Jomari’s friend.
“One more drink to bring us good luck and safety on our journey,” he eagerly said. Alexi and I looked at one another apprehensively. “It’s ok,” he continued in a reassuring tone, “It has less of an effect this high up.”
Even though I knew the exact opposite of what he said was true, I realized it wasn’t worth the argument. So again, one last time, we went through the long toasting ritual, downed our shots, and returned to the car. By now my head was spinning a bit too much to be nervous about plummeting to my death. I sat in my chair and began to drift off into a stupor and the car rolled along. At least if we fall, I’ll miss that moment of terror.
Next thing I knew, I was being shaken awake. It was Remi. “We’re here and alive,” he reassuringly said. I sat up and looked out the car window. The sun was just setting on the horizon and just in front of us were several buildings. It was the village of Omalo. We made it. An allegedly five hour trip that took us ten. But who care about time. We were here and we were all still living. Happily, I took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air.