Mzemoe! – Tusheti Awaits

Hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains, the region’s villages cling to dizzyingly steep slopes that are as picturesque as they are precarious…[You will meet] the most hospitable and fun people in the world. There will be much toasting and playing of accordions. And you will find yourself drinking chacha, the local firewater, out of a ram’s horn - is how CNN described one of Georgia’s and arguably, the world’s, most exotic and unique regions – Tusheti, in their compilation-piece titled “12 best places you have never heard of”. And while the words of praise are music to anyone’s ear, one cannot help but feel a little aggrieved that a place like this finds itself in a “you’ve never heard of” list.

It’s a shared consensus among the government, investors and donors that places like these should get as much exposure as possible to reach their full potential as a touristic and industrial driving force. Despite the involvement from all three aforementioned sectors, there is still a lot to do to raise the visibility of the mountainous region. Events highlighting Tusheti’s uniqueness are of crucial importance and this is exactly what the Czech Development Agency and Georgian Agency of Protected Areas set their sights to as they prepare to launch an ambitious annual two day festival at the end of June.

Mzemoe is the name and the name has a story behind it. Mze means sun in Georgian and moe is a Tushetian rendering of “come.” Tusheti, as the CNN article helpfully attests, is indeed famed for its hospitality – there is an old saying that tells that for a Tush, a guest knocking on his door was akin to the sun rising up before his very eyes. And that is no small statement, especially when you consider how deeply symbolic the sun is drenched in Tushetian ethnicity and culture.

The ancient sun cult was a crucial part of Tushetian pagan society and some aspects of it have been preserved to this day. Another integral symbol for Tusheti, that of sheep, is also closely intertwined with that of the sun, and the trademark dish of Tushetians – the famed khinkali - also owes its shape to the glowing orb in the sky. And finally, mzimoe is what the Tusetians call the equinox period, i.e. from March to September, when it is best to visit Tusheti (unless you fancy riding a horse when it becomes the only possible way).

All aforementioned aspects - hospitality management, sheep and shepherding and local cuisine will be integral to the up-coming festival, which is designed to demonstrate the potential of Tusheti’s tourism industry and identify suitable donors and investors. The Tusheti Protected Area, the largest in Europe, is a curious blend of archaic beauty with modern know-how.

“First and foremost, we intend to attract more visitors to the Protected Area, so the festival is a sorts of a prelude to the season opening,” muses Lasha Moistsrapishvili, head of the Agency of Protected Areas. “We want to demonstrate the ready-made services that are available in Tusheti, and for donors and investors, we want to show the fruits of their investment – the multitude of social projects that have been carried out in Tusheti in recent years. “

The rapid emergence of numerous guesthouses, many run by local families, as well as quality service development are indicators that the Agency’s strategy is working. This involves the development of guesthouses, staff training, tourist guides and so on. One success story is that of “Tusheti Guide,” an association of Tushetian hotel owners, made possible though grant funding from donors. Another is the construction of a tourist shelter at the Alazani River, near to where the path diverges to Khevsureti, another mountainous region. Construction of special bridges on rivers for those crossing on horseback is another step that will give much relief to the local population and tourists alike. The Agency’s burden is shared by their Czech colleagues, who have contributed numerous projects towards easing life in Tusheti. The ambulance center alone, recently complimented with a jeep adapted for first aid purposes, has alleviated many concerns for Tushetians, who otherwise had to commit themselves to a lengthy journey downwards to Kakheti. Another of their major projects, that of forest inventory, will ensure that Tusheti remains as green as it has been, for years to come.

“It is important to remember that the local population spends barely four months here, and it is crucial that they get as much income as possible during this period as this is the money they’ll have to live on for the rest of the year. In this context, our festival is a wonderful chance for them to demonstrate what they can offer and what they could potentially offer with more resources and assistance,” Moistsrapishvili’s says.

However, it happens all too often that the wave of modernization takes a toll on the unique features of what is being modernized, losing the appeal in the process. The Agency is well aware of the risks and its head says they want to preserve Tusheti as it is, with all its traditions and breathtaking nature very much intact. The increase in service quality, paramount as its importance is, should not and will not come at the cost of the protected landscape’s integrity.

“We need to strike a balance between innovation and protection. Traditions make Tusheti what it is, so we want to get as many people as possible familiar with Tushetian local cuisine, livelihood and general way of life. Take, for example, traditional Tushetian games, which we’ve even published a book about. Naturally, this will also be an integral part of the festival. It all needs to be preserved and restored and it falls on us to do it. So we want to raise awareness among the local population, tourists, investors and donors alike about Tusheti – that this is a beautiful, breathtaking and unique place which should obviously be cherished and protected, and the better we are at it, the more it can give back to us.”

Challenges obviously remain, and they aren’t trivial – water supply, sanitation and most importantly, roads are still a problem. Due to the precarious road situation and dangers of snow and landslides, each year the road is only open from May to September, which limits accessibility to the region for potential spring and late autumn tourists. Electricity shortages, despite much-lauded installments of solar panels, are still a concern.

These are the obstacles that need to be overcome, as currently the country is exploiting what amounts to barely one fourth of Tusheti’s immense touristic potential.

“The interest is there – the visitor statistics prove that in a convincing manner – it’s the capacity that we’re currently lacking. At the moment we can host about 500 people in Tusheti, 500 beds that is, which translates to about 26 hotels and, although in 2006, before the creation of the Tusheti National park, there were just seven hotels, it’s still nowhere near enough. And the roads play a crucial part in this. A major investment is needed to change the situation for the better,” Moistsrapishvili admits.

But when it comes to Tusheti, it’s never just about tourism. To bolster the half-deserted villages of Georgia’s mountainous regions, a major boost to traditional livelihood cultures is needed. That’s why greenhouses and granaries have been popping up with increasing speed in Tusheti, while the another equally vital branch, shepherding and wool-making is being steadily modernized – the outdated ways of sheep shearing, which yielded low quality wool, have been replaced with mechanized methods and equipment imported from Europe’s top sheep cultures, courtesy of Caritas Czech Republic, a Czech NGO operating in Georgia. This will be yet another pitch for the Mzemoe festival (a demonstration being ten thousand times better than stacks of project reports!) to donors of what has been (and could be) done, and to show investors what can they invest in and profit from.

If this wasn’t enough to convince you to pop up there (via transport of your choice) at the end of June to see what Tusheti has to offer, here is the pitch that Mr. Moistsrapishvili made when we asked why a foreigner should come to Tusheti:

“First of all, what we are talking about here is 150,000 hectares of protected area – the largest in Europe. Unique becomes a cliché word here – traditions, architecture, landscapes, biodiversity, cuisine – everything is as unique as it gets in Tusheti. This is where, far ahead of Europe I might say, a jury of sorts used to hold a court and pass judgments. This historical ethnicity, untouched, is yours to explore when you get there.”

You can’t argue with a pitch like that. And oh, tickets are free. Tusheti awaits you, just as Man waits for the next sunrise. Mzemoe.

The Festival will take place on June 25-26 in Tusheti National Park and Kvemo Omalo village.

How to get there: Go to village Kvemo Alwani first, best done from Tbilisi from the bus station near Isani subway. From Alwani to Omalo you can get a very reasonably-priced taxi in the center of the village. For more details, please visit the Tusheti National Park facebook page.

Vazha Tavberidze

16 June 2016 18:32