„A deadly, boozy journey“ with the shepherds of Tusheti
29 November, 2017
„A deadly, boozy journey“ with the shepherds of Tusheti
Photographer Amos Chapple joined a group of mountain shepherds on their journey from the steep mountains to the plains.

This „most spectacular animal migrations“ take place every autumn in Georgia’s remote region of Tusheti, when the shepherds bring their sheep down to their winter pastures in Kakheti. Amos Chapple calls this experience a „deadly, boozy journey“.

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The photographer accompanied a group of 6 shepherds with
their 1200 sheep. The men are among dozens of shepherds and their flocks who spend their summer in the Tusheti mountains.

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The trek from their base village down to the plains of Kakheti starts in early October, as autumn comes early to Georgia’s Tusheti mountains.

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29-year-old Sulkhan Gigoidze is the tacit leader of the group. He dropped out of a technical institute to tend sheep, because he didn't want to be around people, as Amos Chapple writes.

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It takes the group three days to hike down. The second day is supposed to be the most intense “with the formidable 2,800-meter-high Abano Pass looming ahead”.

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Part of the group is “Georgik”, a 3-month-old Georgian shepherd. He is treated as a favorite by the men, Amos Chapple recounts. The dogs are important to the shepherds. “The Georgian shepherd is a tough, ancient dog breed that helps keep the sheep in formation and protects them from wolves”, the photographer explains.

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“The dogs are bred to be the same color and size as the sheep they protect. It's impossible to spot the dogs from a distance, meaning the wolf packs that stalk the migrating sheep must treat all flocks with caution.”

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At the base of the pass the men pause for lunch. Amos Chapple describes the menu: a bag of salty sheep cheese, bread, a tin of stewed fish and three shots of the liquor ”chacha” for each of the shepherds. “Every swill is accompanied by a toast - to the mountains, guests, and to a friend who died recently on the road they're about to take.”

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After lunch the climb begins. According to the photographer, the road over the Abano Pass is regarded as one of the most dangerous on Earth.

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He recounts how a truck passes by, carrying the wreckage of a vehicle that toppled off the road. The dead driver of the vehicle was a friend of the group, they tell Amos Chapple.

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The journey goes on: “As the sheep climb, the rain turns to sleet, and then snow.”

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According to the photographer, around 85 percent of each flock is female and each sheep is worth around $60: „The Tusheti sheep are known for their resilience and rich, buttery meat. Their fleece is too coarse to be sold and is usually burned after shearing.”

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When the group reaches the pass, a buffeting wind tugs at the flock. The sheep push ahead because they need to get to the relative warmth of the lower altitudes as quickly as possible, as the photographer points out.

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The weary dogs however sleep where they can, especially “little Georgik” is exhausted and needs the help of the men who carry him over the rougher sections of the path.

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The route is steep and difficult and the group is in a hurry. They have to reach their destination before darkness.

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“As daylight disappears the exhausted flock files down the last sections of the day's trek. After 12 hours of near-continuous marching, Sulkhan counts the losses - eight sheep, a typical number for a large flock crossing the pass.”

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There are multiple reasons for the losses, the photographer explains: “If the sheep stop to rest from injury or exhaustion they soon die of exposure, fall prey to wolves, or are taken straight to slaughter by passing locals.”

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The day is far from being over for the shepherds. After they have made a kind of rudimentary camp they find the wood is too wet to burn, the photographer goes on. “One of the men stuffs one, then a second, rubber boot into the smoldering logs and the fire is soon roaring.”

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The men get dry as best they can, with countless shots of chacha knocked back in the process, before they finally curl up for the night with “little Georgik” slinking inside one of the felt sleeping bags.

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The following day the group reaches their destination: They move into civilization and “the T-shirt weather of the plains” where their first priority is a cold beer.

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Now, the flock will spend one week grazing on the plains to get used to the mild weather, the photographer writes. Then the sheep will continue around 200 kilometers to winter pasture along the border with Azerbaijan.

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Photographs by Amos Chapple

Related stories:

Tusheti among “12 best places you've never heard of” – CNN

Top 5 wild mountainous resorts of Georgia to visit

Georgian farmer ranked first place at Cheese Festival in Italy



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