Another post featuring an exotic location! A number of non UK places have been featured before – USA, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Austria and so on. This time it’s a part of the world few know exists. Yes the country in question is one many should have heard of however the Abano Pass is relatively unknown to the outside world – quite surprising as its the highest unpaved main road in Europe (or Eurasia.) This year, 2018, is the road’s fortieth anniversary.
Most other mountain roads are passable all year however because of its height the Abano is open only for a few months of the year, usually May/June to about September and perhaps October. To open the pass at the beginning of the season requires earth movers to tackle the remaining deep snowdrifts that have accumulated and it is only when this has been done the road is officially open. Even driving the road itself is fraught with dangers and quite a few have lost their lives.
Pshaveli – the sign for the მ44 road to Omalo – 72 km.
The road was built to reach the isolated mountain villages in the Caucasus mountains and it fully opened in 1978 – although it seems a track of sorts has existed for centuries – certainly more so since about the fifties when a road of sorts existed to access Soviet ultra-high frequency radio transmitters and old Russian military maps confirm parts of the route.
Rough map of the Pshaveli-Abano-Omalo road.
The Abano Pass so far has little in the way of modernisation and its a formidable task to even achieve that. Nowhere along any of the route are there any crash barriers to prevent vehicles go over the sides and dropping perhaps a couple of thousand feet. The authorities have very recently tried to improve nine problematic sections of the road on the terraced sections alongside the Stori river in consultation with the people of Pshaveli and Lechuri. The work involved some barriers, concreting of critical sections, and diverting rivers where necessary. Generally the Pshaveli-Abano-Omalo road cannot be easily improved because of the terrain and also environmental considerations as it runs through the Tusheti National Park. However in the last couple of years new road signs have been installed to aid motorists on some of the difficult sections.
The road is closed late summer to late spring and if there is also snow during the open season the Georgia Roads Authorities will no doubt make sure this is known to motorists wishing to use the pass.
Abano pass closed due to snow! Source: Passzwang.de
The road is classed as a national route and its numbered M44 (in Georgian script its მ44.) Its maintained by Tushet Gza, a private company under contract from the Georgian Roads Department who say the ‘Pshaveli-Abano-Omalo road is considered as one of the most complicated roads in Europe.’ That’s putting it quite mildly. The road needs constant attention and there are many emergency call outs to clear landslides or spots where the road has slipped away.
Honey and other farm goods for sale in this meadow just north of Lechuri. Source: You Tube
The route runs for 72km between Pshaveli and Omalo. Its hard surfaced for the first 8km. At Lechuri the road crosses the Stori river for the first time. Beyond Lechuri, where there is a small bridge across the Chakhuriskhevi river, this is the point at which the road becomes a dirt track. It then runs right alongside the Stori river. There are several meadows besides the river where farmers sell honey and other products.
The route mainly follows a northwards route, with the Babaneuri State Reserve (noted for some unusual species of small mammals) in the mountains mainly to the west side of the road. A feature of this section is the ledges cut out of the rock faces alongside the river and water from streams high above regularly rains onto the road. Motorists also have to contend with a regular feature of the pass, and that is the rivers which run straight across the road surface, sometimes causing major problems. One result of this is there are regular landslides and mud. Sometimes the mud is so deep vehicles get fully trapped and have to be pulled out. In most cases earth movers have to be brought in to clear these blockages.
One doesnt have to go far before the first of many memorials to those who have perished on the road is seen. This is just up the Stori valley.
The roadside memorials are numerous, sometimes they are fixed to a rock, other times they are on a post, and in some places have their own little niche by the side of the road with flowers, pictures, ornaments etc.
Animals are frequently encountered on the pass.This is in the Stori canyon. Source: You Tube.
One of the lower river crossings, now somewhat tamed, in the Stori Valley. Source: You Tube.
Clearly the road isn’t exactly easy going! There are a number of steep sections and very sharp bends. Besides the narrow track and the oft steep sides down to the river, the road then begins the first of the many switchbacks that eventually climb about 2300 metres in height.
The first switchbacks to ascend from the Stori valley. Source: You Tube.
The second bridge over the Stori river begins the ardous climb to the Abano pass. The Torghva bath is shown high up on the mountainside. Source: You Tube.
At the second bridge over the Stori river the road turns back on itself and down the other side a short distance before starting its grueling climb to the top of the Abano pass. The road heads north again through the first of its many steep and sometimes dangerous switchbacks (or hairpin bends if one prefers.)
In terms of height gain, the Stori bridge is about 850 metres or so in altitude above sea level whilst the summit of the pass is 2826 metres (9271 feet) hence there’s an ascent of 1976 metres (6482 feet) which is quite mighty. The distance to the summit is just over 4km (two and half miles) as the crow flies. From the bridge to the Torghva bathroom its 3.45km (two and quarter miles) against 1km as the crow flies.
The switchbacks leading to the Torghva bathrooms. The fisrt switchback in the bottom of the valley can be seen! Source: You Tube.
Coincidentally its the same exact distance to the top of the first set of switchbacks (which means the full set of switchbacks up from the Stori amount to 6.90km.) At the top of the switchbacks the road then heads along a spectacular stretch high up in the mountains. Its 4.81km from that point to the very bottom of the next set of switchbacks leading up to the summit.
The one major and notorious river crossing along this section is the closest point one gets to the summit, before actually reaching it. This crossing, at a height of 2279 metres (in essence its just a drive over the bottom of what’s essentially a waterfall that regularly likes to deposit a huge amount of landslip on the road) is just 925 metres in tems of distance from the Abano summit. The summit itself is 547 metres high above this point on the road. Its an almost vertical height so the road has to wind for 4.17 km just to get up the mountain. The cumulative road distance from the bridge on the Stori river to the Abano pass summit amounts to 15km for a height gain of 1976 metres.
The Torghva rest rooms – a stopping point for motorists. Source: You Tube.
Because of the nature of the terrain the road also takes a number of descents en route in order to attain the next section that has to be climbed therefore the figures are just a guideline to certain exact points along the Stori-Torghva-Abano summit stretch and how the averages work out which results in a gradient of 13%. That is steep for a normal road, but giving averages can be a bit misleading when the steepest actual gradients on certain sections of the Abano pass are more likely to be 28% to 32%.
Getting back on the course of the road itself, the switchbacks up from the Stori continue to the Torghva bathroom, which is actually a resting place & toilets for motorists wishing to take a break. The nearby Torghva Hot Springs refers to the present hostel or residency sited down a track just beyond the ‘bathroom.’ There is also a mineral baths just beyond this.
Near the hotel (or residency as it might be called) is a small building that houses the Torghva springs bath and its open to anyone. The water is said to have beneficial properties.
The Torghva Baths building on its spectacular outcrop high above the valley by Alex Kuper. Source: Google Streets
The guy who looks after the Torghva spoke about the problems of using the Abano pass in a TV interview: “It’s become a very important road for the Tusheti. It’s opened up Tusheti to the rest of the world. People die here because cars slip over the side and end up in the gorge. The death rate has shot up since the number of cars has increased. Fall off a horse and you’ve got one dead, roll a car and you’ll lose three or four. There are a few shrines along the road, those three were co-workers of mine. You’ve seen those three down there. Up the hill is where another three of my colleagues died. The road is very dangerous and merciless. You can’t lose your concentration even for a second. Keep concentrating and there shouldn’t be an accident.” Source: BBC World’s Most Dangerous Roads.
The Abano pass at Torghva – it can be seen coming up the mountainside in the distance then a bit nearest the camera with bend is also seen. The other road, a bit lower leads to the Torghva springs buildings, seen in the middle of the picture. Source: Twitter
Coming down the pass towards Torghva. Source: Twitter
The Abano Pass isn’t quite in the same class as other dangerous roads such as Chile’s ‘Death Road’ there are few locations where the road drives atop a cliff face, its mostly steep sloping grassed sides with very long drops into the valleys. But don’t let this be misleading. It can indeed be a treacherous road and there are numerous memorials en route to those who have perished whilst trying to use the Abano. Landslides and rockfalls are frequent and the river crossings are often challenging because of very deep water and the fact the sides of the river get eroded creating almost insurmountable slopes for even 4WD’s to climb.
The rare sight of an emergency vehicle coming down the pass with blue lights flashing! Source: You Tube.
It seems the Abano Pass has its own emergency vehicle and probably belongs to Tushet Gza, the company contracted to maintain the pass. I have seen it featured in a couple of other You Tube videos.
Another memorial on the pass. Source: BBC TV
The steep switchbacks continue beyond the Torghva taking at first an eastern then northeastern direction. At the top of this ascent another dodgy river crossing is met. Generally it is okay but if there is heavy weather there can be floods and landslips and its a spot where many vehicles have come to grief.
Landslips are a problem and can close the road for days. Some take the risk and drive their vehicles over the tops of these landslips. The problem is its not very stable and the rocks could shift under the vehicle’s weight. Source: You Tube.
Another landslip at this notorious location. Note the height of the landslip and the person besides on the road surface! Source: You Tube.
Here’s a You Tube video of the Tusheti authorities trying to use a lorry to clear a huge landslide. Lots of work by the look of it trying to clear a landslide before the earth movers could arrive. The location is a little south of Khiso.
The road high above Torghva (just visible near the bottom of pic) as seen from the ascent to the summit. Source: Twitter
So far the road has run in a general north east direction and if the weather is good the summit of the Abano will be visible straight ahead, and about 620 metres or so higher at this point. After another river crossing (actually its most times a stream but in really bad weather it can become a rapids and there have been many landslides here) the road changes to a westerly direction for a distance, and soon marks the steep and crazy series of bends and switchbacks leading up to the Abano. Once at the top the views are good down either side of the mountain and there is plenty of space to park.
On the way to the summit. This is early summer when the farm animals are take to higher pastures. Source: Twitter
The road’s ascent to the summit of the pass. The mountain sides are more vertical than they look. Source: Unusual Places
Almost vertical! One of the steep slopes leading up the final section to the summit of the Abano pass. Source: You Tube.
The top of the Abano Pass is marked by a series of aerials and dishes at the summit. A recent project (2017) enabled a huge mast to be built at the summit with several others at attitudes of between 2,500 and 3,500 metres above sea level and this enables free wi-fi for miles around but its mainly intended for the many isolated villages in the Tusheti region although visitors can use it.
The summit of the Abano pass looking north with Shavi Klde (3284 m) dominant. Source: You Tube.
The high mountain summits either side of the pass itself are Shavi Klde (3284 m) to the west and Bulanchos Tsveri (3256m) to the east. The views are spectacular with the road snaking up either side of the mountain. Like all good mountain locations, the clouds can take over and the Abano is frequently in the clouds which makes driving more difficult as visibility is limited.
Crosses at the summit of the Abano pass. Source: Instagram
At the top of the Abano Pass. Source: Twitter
The summit of the Abano looking south west towards central Georgia. Source: You Tube.
Winter view of Bulanchos Tsveri (3256m) one of the mountains overlooking the summit of the pass. Source: You Tube.
One of the crazy switchbacks leading down the Omalo side of the Abano pass. Source: You Tube.
Lots of farmers take their animals from the valleys up to the areas around the Abano Pass during the summer, and herds of sheep or cows can be a frustration for motorists who have to crawl behind the animals for long periods until they can find a space to pass. By the end of September the work is done in reverse and the animals are all rounded up and taken back to the valleys. Sometimes the farmers have to work into November and Decemember because – like all mountain farming across the world – the job comes with the huge headache of having to locate stock that has probably strayed miles away from their last known locations.
Here’s a great article that features this annual migration down into the valleys – even the Daily Mail has featured a good article on this too – both feature excellent photography from Amos Chapple. This Georgian documentary also features similar, following the work of farmers trying to get their animals over the top of a completely snowed-in pass.
Near the summit of the Abano Pass as winter descends. Source: Twitter
The road drops down the other side by way of more twisty bends and steep switchbacks, finally joining the Satskhvrekhorkhi river about where the Ilia falls can be found. Part way along here is a river crossing at Pitsrischala and many vehicles face problems especially if the river has been running high and the road approaches have got washed away. Another river crossing comes soon after as the road follows the numerous Alazani rivers. As well as the Satskhvrekhorkhi the others are the Chabalakhi, Khinsos Alazani and the Tushetis Alazani. The ‘Gometsris Alazani’ is also in use this seems to be the umbrella name for all the rivers in this area.
Coming down from the summit with Shavi Klde (3284 m) just visible. Source: Twitter
A number of the river crossings down this side are very tricky. All of those across the pass are difficult but to different extents. Those up on the mountain suffer from landslips whilst those lower down such as the one over the Chabalakhi suffer from flooding and erosion of the river banks which means vehicles can’t get up the sides of the river and many get stuck as a result.
A rather dodgy crossing at Pitsrischala through the Chabalakhi river. Getting stuck is an operative word! Source: You Tube.
The same location at Pitsrischala just after the pass has opened for the summer! Source: You Tube.
View looking down the Alazani valley. Source: You Tube.
Yes roadworks will also hold you back! Alazani Valley. Source: You Tube.
Gometsris is a name which comes from one of the local peoples. The Tusheti national park is about conservation and ecology and support of the people who live here and have their own dialects. There are four main communities in the Tusheti, the Chaghma, Tsova, Piriqita and of course the Gometsari. The Tusheti is a region that has been known for centuries and its peoples were first mentioned by Ptolemy about two hundred years before Christ.
Roadworks about 3km south of Khiso. The road kept getting flooded hence a decision was made to raise the roadway. Here’s a Google Street View of the same section!
Getting stuck in the mud alongside the Khisos Alazani river. Source: You Tube.
More getting stuck in the mud by the Khisos Alazani river. Source: You Tube.
Four more through the river crossings follow and then a proper bridge finally where the road switches from the west to the east bank of what is now the Tushetis Alazani river at Khiso. Here the road splits – that to the left goes to Khakhabo, that straight over the bridge is for Omalo. The route soon turns southwards and a division in the road (the other route goes to Kumelaurta) heralds the bridge over the Tushetis Alazani before starting a series of switchbacks leading up to the plateau where Omalo is located.
A lovely shot showing Tusheti farmers with their heard crossing the river at Khiso. Source: Matthias Gehricke
The final bridge over the Alazani en route to Omalo – on the far side of the crosing Kumelaurta is to the left and the Abano to the right. Source: You Tube.
The climb up from the Khisos Alazani river to Omalo. Source: Instahu
Guide to the Tusheti National Park and protected areas. Source: Czech Aid. (Warning its a 56mb file!)
There are seven main villages with Omalo and Shenako the two biggest ones. Here people live in traditional Georgain houses, colourfully decorated with wooden balconies. Its possible to drive beyond Omalo to Girevi and other places in the Gometsari Valleys. Bochorna, reputedly the highest settlement in Europe at 2345 metres or 7694 feet is reached by a road leading off before Dartlo, and this route also ultimately goes to the Gometsari Valleys.
Aerial view of Zemo Omalo (or Upper Omalo.) Source: Google Streets.
Many of the villages in these mountain places throughout Georgia have mysterious towers some very spectacular. Omalo is overshadowed by the six towers of the Keselo fortress. Electricity was once available in the area – certainly many will not fail to notice the disused electricity pylons snaking their way up and down the mountain sides en route to Omalo.
The fortress at Zemo Omalo. Source: You Tube.
These mountain communities and their architecture and histories are of great interest however it must be pointed out that strong traditions are present and the locals have a very high regard for their traditions and culture. People can walk around these villages but its important keep to the accepted routes and not go into anyone’s gardens or homes. Its the locals’ prerogative and absolutely not anyone else’s if they so wish to invite visitors into their homes. This is made specific in a number of local guides to the Tusheti region.
The remote village of Dartlo. Source: Georgian Tour
Dartlo is a must see although it is not as discussed as Omalo. Both are greatly historic places and the Omalo fortress is stupendous. However Dartlo has a setting which I somewhat prefer and that is the houses, mixed with the villages’ towers, rise up within a cleft in the valley. This makes the village a spectacular sight from whichever angle it is viewed.
Dartlo has many clean mountainous springs and one of these, the ‘Vedzebi’ is used for bathing, drinking, and health treatments by the locals. Again, its not for use by visitors so please respect the locals’ traditions.
Lovely view of Dartlo’s houses and its towers. Source: You Tube.
In the BBC TV series World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Series three, broadcast in December 2012, Hugh Bonneville and Jessica Hynes drove across the Abano Pass to Omalo, Dartlo, and ultimately the border post – within reach of Chechnya.
Hugh Bonneville & Jessica Hynes at the border post. Source: Hugh Bonneville Online.
Although it is recommended to do the pass with no less that a 4WD there are reports of tourists successfully using 2WD vehicles. This video on You Tube shows a 1997 built Ford Escort (by then getting on for twenty years old) being driven over the Abano. Amazingly it’s been driven all the way from from Britain to Georgia too! I have also seen video of a VW T2 more than thirty years old joyfully making its way to Omalo, carrying ten passengers without any problems! Conditions on those particular journeys were however very good and it seems the pass is certainly attracting those who wish to give their clapped out vehicles a bit of a challenge. Nothing wrong with that as long as the risks are fully understood. Mountains are nice but they can become brutal environments in the space of a few short moments. Given the usual conditions though a 4WD is the best vehicle as it ensures nearly all obstacles can be met for – given the 4WDs even have a very arduous task at times.
View of the Alazani valley near Omalo. The Pshaveli-Abano-Omalo road is at the bottom of the valley! Source: Google Streets.
Driving times are said to be in the region of 5 to seven hours although again there are reports of people doing it in about three and half hours without a hitch and motorcyclists in about two and half hours. Generally, and especially after heavy rain, there are bound to be problems such as landslides or rivers flooding the road, river crossings that are too deep and so on and traffic can be suspended for several days even.
For example the road was closed between 9th and 13th August this year due to landslides. Even to do regular maintenance they have to close the road for considerable periods of times. Roads Georgia has this page where updates on the Abano Pass can be found. It is also advisable to have a full tank of fuel (petrol or diesel) and a back up supply too for there are no petrol stations beyond the very beginning of the road at Pshaveli – the road to Omalo is only about 72 kilometers long but a huge drink in terms of fuel consumption!
I would have liked to have featured some more images, there were over 200 screen-caps (as well as many other sources and embeds) involving about 56 videos in total which were viewed. A considerable number of documents and other sources were scoured too for information or history related to the Abano Pass. Ultimately I had to trim loads of stuff out otherwise this post was going to become a substantial guide book!
Just a few days before I had finished this post I was given some sweets that had come all the way from Badagi’s in Roman Miminoshvili Street, Tbilisi! The city is of course the capital of Georgia. Talk about coincidences! 🙂
The feature image of the Abano Pass (top of page) is from Twitter