The Georgian Pankisi Gorge is situated in the very heart of the High Caucasus and is one of the most northern regions of Georgia. Pankisi is an ideal place for nature and trekking lovers as well as fans of climbing expeditions. Many pedestrian and horse trails run through this region. Off-road cars can be used on some of the routes, and mountain river valleys and waterfalls can be admired through the window.
In the 12th and 13th century there used to be a rich duchy called Torgwa Pankeli, named after a Georgian aristocrat. The duchy was surrounded with massive walls, fortifications as well as signal and fortified turrets. Within these fortifications the Georgians built many Christian churches, whose ruins are still visible in every corner of Pankisi.
On the Eastern part of the gorge there is a picturesque Tusheti National Park. The protected area embraces the alpine belt with its coniferous forests, crystal clear mountain lakes and mountain pastures. In the mountain forests one can encounter a Caspian sea wolf, a lynx, Caucasian goats and chamois. Over the canopy fly black-billed capercaillies, Caucasian snowcocks and pheasants. In addition to nature, residential turrets with defensive features are another attraction of the park.
The current of the Alazani River is rapid, but the river isn’t deep and has many small bays, thanks to which it is perfect for mountain canoeing rallies and rafting. Big spinning-on-the-surface tyres are great for this purpose as well. The streams of the Alazani river turn into waterfalls at the foot of the Great Caucasus. Thrill enthusiasts jump from their tops into the river in the places where natural, deeper basins have been formed. The Kists will disclose to the fishermen where wild trout fisheries are located.
Small mountain horses travel on the High Caucasus routes almost effortlessly with tourists and luggage on their backs. At the top, one can spend the night in a shepherd’s hut. The highlanders are happy to demonstrate to hikers the process of the production of a dozen or so kinds of cheese, butter or cream. Those who are hungry will be fed on lamb shish kebab and other types of meat.
Autumn around the mountain Bacar Reserve is the sweet chestnut picking season. When grilled or cooked in the oven, the chestnuts taste delicious.
The band Daimoakh (Motherland) is made up of singers and dancers widely recognised in Georgia. Dressed in traditional Kist outfits, they perform lezginkas, one of the most popular dances in the Caucasus, which the tourists are invited to perform alongside the natives. They sing and play both Georgian and Chechen songs, which gives their performance a unique flavour. The members of the band sometimes accompany tourists on their mountain trips, their singing resounding around the neighbouring mountain tops.
The Kists are glad to show tourists around their mosques, churches and home shrines, which cannot be found in any guidebooks. In an old mosque in Duisi the members of a female Sufi brethren gather to recite the dzikr prayer. The women invite to their part of the mosque all those who wish to go there and are interested in the Sufi tradition. This is one of the greatest attractions in Pankisi, often compared to the famous Whirling Dervishes in Turkey.
In the home workshops the Kists make felt, a highly durable fabric, from sheep wool. In addition to warm shepherd clothes, the craftsmen make various colourful accessories: bags, cases, hats and wall hangings, which may be bought right on the spot. The traditional process of felt production is one of the most interesting elements of the Kist culture.
The traditional Kist cuisine includes Chechen (żiżik gałnysz) and Georgian (chinkali, chaczapuri) dishes. Typical of Kist cuisine are mutton, goat, beef and chicken kebabs (usually prepared in the open air during mountain trips). The Kists make many types of dairy products, such as: several types of cheese, butter, cream and yoghurt. They also bake wheat and maize bread, and will treat you to some lovely home wine.
The Pankisi Gorge can also be reached from the Ortaczala bus station in Tbilisi on one of the marszrutkas, minibuses that hold around a dozen passengers, and which leave a bus stop only when they are full. Travelling this way is cheap, and travelling time is around 3.5 hours. If you are driving yourself, purchase petrol in Tblisi as high-octane and unleaded fuels are harder to obtain in the countryside.
The Kists usually make available to their guests a whole storey of their house, with a separate entrance. The guests are offered spacious rooms. Most houses are surrounded by a big garden, in the vicinity of which there are orchards, vineyards, apiaries as well as bird and cattle farms. Vast terraces are usually covered in grapevines from which heavy, purple and dark blue Kist wine is made. The wine is drunk from glasses or special buffalo horns, and it leaves on one’s lips a specific residue in that very colour. At their doorstep, the Kists treat their guests to local culinary specialities. They don’t let their guests buy any food, and offer them home-grown fruit for free.
An inseparable element of the Kist hospitality is feasting together, according to the following Georgian saying: "a guest is God’s messenger". The Kists are honoured to have guests and gladly invite them to the table. During such feasts the natives often organise Kist and Georgian music concerts as well as traditional dance shows.
The nearest hospital is located in Akhmeta, but there is a chemist in one of the villages in the Pankisi-Dzokolo Gorge. Medical care for tourists is not free, with a private clinic visit costing between 15 and 40 USD.
Mobile phone calls from a foreign phone number, ie. roaming, is expensive. A better option might be purchasing a Georgian calling card, especially as network coverage is not as good in the Panski Gorge as in the cities. Internet is available in the Culture Club in the village of Duisi.
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