Connecting the Caucasus

Tusheti, spread across the peaks and valleys of the Caucasus Mountains in northeastern Georgia, is all but cut off from the outside world for seven months of the year. The only road in and out, through the treacherous Abano Pass, is impassable until the winter snows clear. Occasional visits by a Border Service helicopter are the only physical link during the long winter.

The region is the ancestral home of the Tush people, traditionally nomadic shepherds who spent summers in alpine villages, and winters on sheltered lower slopes. Over the past decades, the Tush have chosen to spend the winter months in the lowland towns of Kvemo and Zemo-Alvani, leaving their mountain villages empty at this time. Only a few hardy souls brave the winter cold and isolation.

In spring, when the road opens, the Tush flood back up to the highlands, with shepherds making a ten-day trek to bring their flocks to alpine pastures. Young people who have electricity, indoor plumbing and gaming consoles in the lowlands, spend their summer mornings milking cows and their days on horseback. Despite the comforts of the lowland life, there is a palpable sense that for most Tush, the mountains are their real home.

Tusheti is famed for its cheese and wool, but production volumes and access to markets are limited. Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy - simple seasonal guesthouses cater for summer hikers who come to experience the beauty of the Caucasus. But the tourism sector is also constrained by the very remoteness that is its main attraction. An intrepid group of volunteers brought high-speed Internet access to the mountains, an initiative of the local Tusheti Development Fund, supported by the Internet Society. They hauled materials across the rugged terrain on horseback, and camped on remote peaks to build built masts and install solar-powered dishes to beam WiFi signals across the mountains. They hope that the Internet will boost the tourism sector, allowing businesses to advertise and transact online, and open up markets for local wool and cheese. By increasing income-generating opportunities, they hope to counter the rural-urban drift that is seeing young people move away to cities, leaving only the elderly behind.

Detractors, however, feel that Tusheti's simplicity and remoteness should be preserved, and that the modern world should be kept at bay. Will the Internet ultimately prove to be a way to preserve a history and a way of life, or could it instead corrupt one of the last isolated regions of the Caucasus?