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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Utecht

Pankisi Gorge (Travel Blog)

While Go Trip provided us with a safe and kind driver -- coffee included! -- it only got us to Akmeta, still 27km from our destination of Jokolo in the Pankisi Gorge.

"How much to Jokolo?" Owen asked in Russian.

Our driver checked Google Maps and blew out from between barely unpursed lips, the sound of a man in the process of pulling a number out of his ass. "30 lari? Maybe 40."

I balked. The number we had been given as an estimate from the guesthouse was 1o lari. I wanted to laugh. But in matters of tact when being overcharged -- and in a few other instances -- Owen can be the levelheaded one. "Actually," he said, "I think we will see Akhmeta first and get a taxi from here. Thanks though."

We were stopping at a line of flags, and I got the feeling that we had already seen most of Akhmeta just driving the main road, but I nodded my agreement and swallowed my indignation. If it weren't for the way-too-high price, we would not have ended up taking Dato's taxi.

After a mixture of English, Georgian, Russian, and emphatic hand gesticulations, a woman at a small store called a taxi for us. It was Dato who picked us up to get us to Jokolo. He was Georgian -- and not Kist, thank you very much! Through Dato, we saw the major problem this region has with tourists: the stereotype they have. "Wild people!" Dato said, and though he said it with more amazement than fear, it isn't the sort of phrase that looks good on a tourism brochure.

About two and a half hours outside of Tbilisi -- depending on how crazy your taxi driver drives -- the Pankisi Gorge is situated in a valley along the Alazani River within the gorgeous Kakheti region. This time of year, Kakheti is ablaze with autumn colors and the drive alone would have been worth the effort. Pankisi is home to the Kists, people of Chechen ethnicity. However, while this is what the guidebooks, articles online, and Georgians call them, but in speaking with us, they referred to themselves as Chechens and called the language they spoke with one another "Chechen."

These Chechens, due to close relations to Georgians, avoided deportation to Central Asia in the 1940s, though they are still dealing with the negative stereotypes that comes with the word "Chechen." It was because of this negative stereotype that Nazy opened her guesthouse and began hosting tourists. After confronting the editor of the Bradt Guide, asking why he was publishing lies about Pankisi Gorge being dangerous, she hosted him and had the newest editions changed to reflect the safety and beauty reflected in the guidebook rather than the negative reputation.

Nazy's Guesthouse is located in the village of Jokolo. Its garden is a great place to relax (and maybe do some writing), the rooms are comfortable, clean, and modern with a bit of Chechen flair in the artwork and carpets, and the food is to die for. While I don't eat meat, my husband enjoyed the meatball soup. My favorite was the local version of khinkali filled with nettle. You can finally get your revenge for all that stinging! Beyond all this, Nazy organizes a variety of activities. We took the full-day cultural tour and the half-day horseback riding, though I will certainly be back for the Chechen cooking class and the 6 day horse trek to Tusheti.

Exploring Jokolo and the nearby Duisi -- named for Dui and Jokolo, early Chechen settlers who came to Georgia with a promise of protecting Georgians from Dagistanis -- we saw a wide variety of history. Within the city, there are two mosques, the more historically interesting dating to the early 20th century, though it has been renovated twice since then and the minaret isn't quite so old as the main structure. On the door, there was Chechen language written in Georgian and Cyrillic scripts as well as Arabic. While their mosques stand proud and many throughout the villages, the churches go to ruin. The St. George Church in Jokolo is still standing strong enough, but over the dam, you can find the ruins of two middle ages churches. Churches rarely go to ruins in Georgia, but as this is a Muslim area, they aren't kept up. The faintest frescoes can still be seen on the walls.

The Ethnographic Museum in Duisi is an eclectic room filled with artifacts such as felt wall hangings, instruments, bellows, picks for making felt, and coins with Queen Elizabeth stamped on to name just a few things. There are no signs or explanations. I wandered around several times, wondering at each item why it made the cut, what exactly it meant. I came up with a different reason each time. This is much like asking about the issues of the valley to the people who we spoke to. No one could give us a straight answer for why the amphitheater faded poem at the top of the memorial was riddled with bullets, but we got a different answer from everyone. Our guide extolled the proposed highway that would take tourists to Tusheti through the gorge rather than the current, dangerous road, while Nazy was disgusted at the suggestion, citing pollution, environmental impact, and damage to their tourism if it is to go through. Our taxi driver called the Kists wild, while our host showed us a different side to it. You can read about the Pankisi Gorge all you want (or as much as the limited literature on it allows), but it really is a place to experience for yourself.

See the delicate carvings of both wood and metal that adorn the houses. Smell the drying persimmons that hang on string off balconies like popcorn in old Christmas movies. Explore the old cemetery with its inscriptions too faded to read, scratched on stone dragged all the way from the mountains so it could resembles those graveyards back in Chechnya, and, of course, finally get your revenge on stinging nettle by shoving it in a dumpling and taking a big bite.

If you want to see my writing vlog of the Panksi Gorge, check it out here.

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