Worth a Trip: Pankisi Valley
Visiting this remote slice of Kakheti between the region’s fertile wine-producing lowlands and the inhospitable mountains of Tusheti is a fascinating cultural experience. The local population, who refer to themselves as Kists after the village in nearby Chechnya from where their ancestors once came, are Sunni Muslims, speak a dialect of Chechen as well as Georgian and normally Russian, and live a traditional agrarian lifestyle in a series of five small villages strung along the Alazni River, all linked by one road.
Unfairly accused of being a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism during the Second Chechen War (1999–2009), the area was considered dangerous for years, but in recent years a group of women in the area have formed the Pankisi Valley Tourism and Development Association, which seeks to change the image of the area by promoting the region to visitors and encouraging homestays and cultural tourism. The founder of the association, Nazy Dakishvili, has her own guesthouse in the village of Jokolo, and this makes an excellent place to stay, not least as Nazy speaks good English, a rarity here.
There are now some eight different guesthouses in Pankisi and travellers curious to discover the people and traditions of the area will enjoy spending a few days here. Every Friday at midday local women perform a devotional Sufi ceremony of singing and chanting known as Zikr at the mosque in Duisi, which is the area’s main cultural attraction. Other popular activities include cooking classes, visiting the Khodori Waterfall and the Batsara Nature Reserve, where you can see 2000-year-old yew trees, and horse riding or mountain biking along eight marked trails through the thickly forested rolling countryside of the valley.