The Atlantic: S-P-E-C-T-A-C-U-L-A-R photos by Amos Chapple — shepherds’ autumn descent to the plains in Georgia

6 Nov

The Shepherds of the Tusheti Mountains

(Note from Twitter feed: Byz history Tweep@ByzHistoryTweep· This photo report on pastoralism in the Caucasus is still the best thing I’ve ever read in @TheAtlantic – not least because it brought back very personal memories from Epirus. Same migrations, same flocks, and even the same white shepherd dogs.)

Every autumn, a spectacular animal migration takes place in Georgia’s Tusheti region in the northern Caucasus Mountains. Radio Free Europe photographer Amos Chapple recently joined a group of shepherds and their dogs on what he refers to as a “deadly, boozy journey” from the steep mountains to the plains, as they brought their 1,200 sheep down to their winter pastures.

See full piece: https://twitter.com/ByzHistoryTweep/status/1324767277590421504
  • On the road towards the formidable 9,190 ft (2,800 m) high Abano Pass. The morning is spent winding through the alpine lakes and watching for the rocks that occasionally clatter down the cliffs. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • In the villages of Tusheti, summers offer lush green grass for grazing, but autumn comes early to the highlands, and by early October Tusheti’s shepherds round up their flocks and begin to move before winter grips the mountains. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • A group of friends with their 1,200 sheep are some of the dozens of shepherds who spend their summers in the Tusheti mountains. It will take them three days to move from their village down to the safety of the plains. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • For one member of the clan, the migration will be a new experience. “Georgik,” a 3-month-old Georgian Shepherd was rejected by his mother as a pup, and is treated as a favorite by the men. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • Georgik runs alongside sheep as one of hundreds of streams is crossed on a switchback. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • The tacit leader of the shepherds is Sulkhan Gigoidze. The 29-year old dropped out of a technical institute to become a shepherd. “I didn’t want to be around people.” # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • Georgian Shepherd dogs are a tough, ancient breed who help keep the sheep in formation and protect them from wolves. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • The climb to Abano Pass is regarded as one of the most dangerous on Earth. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • At the base of the pass the men pause for lunch—a bag of salty sheep cheese, bread, a tin of stewed fish. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • They share “chacha,” a viciously strong liquor made from the leftovers of wine production. The shepherds down three shots each. Every swill is accompanied with a toast—to the mountains, guests, and to a friend who died recently on the road they’re about to take. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • Several pups too young to make the journey on their own were carried along on the trip. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
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  • Keeping warm. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • A shepherd leads his horse during a rest near Abano Pass. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • The flock stretches along a narrow road. The Georgian Shepherd dogs that help herd them are bred to be the same color and size as the sheep they protect. From a distance, it’s impossible to spot the dogs, meaning all flocks are treated with caution by the wolves which stalk the migration. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • A traffic jam at a narrow bridge. Road-clearing bulldozers warming their engines at the base of the pass are an ominous sign, heavy snow is blanketing the pass which still lies ahead of the flock. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • Around 85 percent of each flock is female. 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. The breed carry a wobbly lump of fat above their hind legs which serves as a kind of emergency energy reserve. Each sheep is worth around $60. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • As the sheep and shepherds climb, the rain turns to sleet, and then snow. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • A buffeting wind tugs at the flock as they crest the pass. With no shelter to be had, the flock push ahead. The animals need to get to the relative warmth of the lower altitudes as quickly as possible. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • On the other side of the pass the men turn off the serpentine road and direct the flock straight down the mountainside. The sticks the men use for thwacking wayward sheep come in handy on the risky descent. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • The flock rejoins the road, but only for a short time. It’s a race against darkness to descend from the freezing heights of the mountains. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • As the sheep pick their way down the mountain face, the weary dogs snatch sleep where they can. Little Georgik is exhausted, and yelps in fright at some of the steeper sections of the mountain. The men help to carry him over the rougher sections of the path. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • As the sheep enter the tree line, they plunge straight down the slopes that, from above, look impossibly steep. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • A Georgian Shepherd at sunset. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • As the daylight disappears, the exhausted flock files down the last sections of the day. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • After 12 hours of near continuous marching, Sulkhan says the flock lost eight sheep, a typical number for a large flock crossing the pass. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • Once the sheep sit down from injury or exhaustion they quickly die of exposure. Some are also picked off by wolves, or by passing locals who take them straight for slaughter. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • After the shepherds make a kind of rudimentary camp, the men get dry as best they can, and countless shots of chacha are knocked back, before they finally curl up into their felt sleeping bags. Little Georgik slinks inside Dato’s sleeping bag. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • Autumn colors on the steep slopes of the mountains in the Tusheti region. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • The following day the flock moves into civilization and the t-shirt weather of the plains—and the first priority for the men is a cold beer from one of the village stores. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • With the mountains far behind them, the flock will spend one week grazing on the plains to get used to the mild weather, before continuing around 200 km to their winter pastures on the border with Azerbaijan. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • With the toughest part of his journey behind him, Georgik has a spring in his step once more. Soon though, he will learn that what comes down must go up. In the spring, an even tougher test will be the journey back up into the mountains. By that time he’ll be a fully-grown dog who’ll be too big for much sympathy from the men, and definitely too big to sneak into any sleeping bags. # © Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

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