The Abbey

She was shielding her eyes from the sun, a lone nun, framed by the blades of the helicopter’s rotors against the mountains and a flawless sky. I was hitchhiking, riding out on a Georgian Border Police chopper to begin an assignment in a remote region of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. We had made an unexpected detour to the west, and touched down briefly in an abandoned valley. It was here that she emerged from a tiny abbey. I was able to establish her name, but little else. Her image would not leave me.

After my assignment, I pieced together where we had landed on that day, poring over trekking sites, satellite images and my own grab shots from the helicopter portholes. Months later, on another trip to Georgia, I took a communal minibus north from Tbilisi and hiked up the valley, with a message in a translation app on my phone: “Hello, my name is Nyani. I am a photographer…”

The Truso Valley leads into the Russian-occupied territory of South Ossetia. In summer, hikers visit the ruins of Zakagori, a medieval fortress that sits at the valley’s head, but border police at an outpost a short walk from the abbey prevent them from going any further. The police patrol the frontier zone, as do their antagonists, with each side keeping strictly to their respective schedules, “because if we see them, we will have to shoot them.” A couple of Azeri nomad families graze small herds of cattle and sheep during the summer, but the valley is otherwise all but abandoned.