James Kerwin Photographic
 Architecture & Travel Photography

Photography Adventure Blog

Photography doesn’t always go according to plan and of course images aren’t always perfect. This is my honest and open behind the scenes look into what I do as an architecture, adventure and travel photographer.

 

The Remote Region of Shatili & Mutso, Georgia

 

I had been discussing with some friends, that were visiting Georgia from back home in the UK about the possibility of an adventure into the mountains for some time.

The issue was, we did not have much time available by the time they arrived into and explored Tbilisi. They were starting (as many Europeans do) in Kutaisi airport and only had seven days in Georgia.

Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (45 of 46).jpg

Just a week before my friends landed though, I was tipped off about a location during a walking tour I was giving through the streets of Tbilisi. The location was was nearer to Tbilisi when self-driving and the video I was shown seemed to indicate it was just about possible in a 2-wheel drive vehicle.

The region was at the top end of a road well into the mountains, but not as dangerous as the road to Tusheti (which is one of the world’s worst). The journey, I was told would take around four to six hours, weather permitting. This all looked more than interesting, so I shared the idea with the group and we started planning a short trip to Shatili.

Beautiful Shatili is located deep in the Arghuni gorge sitting at around 1,400 metres above sea level, the village is a unique complex of medieval to modern fortresses which look extremely unique - an outstanding part of Georgian heritage.

The village currently has only 22 inhabitants, each of whom only live here throughout the summer months. They move up from Tbilisi to run the few accommodation options and to escape the heat. There are one of two full time families in the region, a region that is packed full of abandoned homes, crypts and castles all accessible by roads that are to die for (Well if you are in control of the vehicle!)

We were going to a region that is currently only popular with hikers and this is how many people arrive here as they walk the popular route to Tusheti, a route that takes no less than four days!

shatili map.jpg

OUR JOURNEY TO UPPER KHEVSURETI

Before the lads arrived from England, I hired us a big Nissan Exteria. We nicknamed the car Stella during the road trip - mainly in error and perhaps because we had just experienced an alcohol fuelled weekend?

If you plan a trip, it is worth noting that the road to Shatilli is only open for 3 months of the year (July, August and September) due to the altitude of the village and amount of snowfall it gets. But be prepared if you fancy it, it takes around six hours from Tbilisi and you feel each and every bump along the way – even in a 4x4.

Coming up from Tbilisi the main road splits from Georgian military highway before Zhinvali water reservoir but heads further heads North.The drive would require an incredible amount of patience from all of us. The driver would need to be slow and steady and the passengers would need to excuse each bump in the road.  

So of course, the drive up and through the mountains was a tense one. On the Datvisjvari Pass, you must be prepared to wait at some points for other cars to come through. It is a slim track in parts and due to the road going through several mountain ranges and being hit by frequent rains and storms, it can be wet and slippy.

Occasionally, the mountain collapses onto the road which in turn stops cars from passing by. However, there is always a convoy of diggers along the route that respond quickly to any reports of this happening along the pass.

If this happens on your day of travel, (as it did on our return trip) the journey can take anything up to an additional three hours as the road is repaired and cleared of rubble. During this time the road is shut, and cars wait patiently for it to re-open.

However, I don’t consider this a huge problem. Stopping along this route for awhile to check out the view or to take a few snaps, is not exactly a stressful moment.

We were lucky on our route up to Shatili that there was only a couple of short hold ups and issues that meant slowing our speed right down to 5-10km an hour. The main highlight occurred when we approached the top of the pass, and into a thick blanket of cloud that was cascading from the valley behind over the road and mountain peak.

We continued through the thick cloud cover and I slowly negotiated our 4x4 down to the other side of the mountain - where we eventually returned to normal, but much cooler conditions back beneath the cloud cover.

SHATILI VILLAGE

Once I completed the slow but picturesque drive, I pulled into the yard of the guesthouse. This allow the group to see our home for the next two nights, for the first time – of course they were disappointed at not having a hot-tub!

We settled into our basic accommodation, and then prepared some food and wine that we had packed into the cars boot after a visit to Carrefour in Tbilisi on our way out of the city.

The main part of Shatili (which we were sleeping in the garden of by the way) was built in the late medieval era (XIV – XVII). The village consists of around fifty fortress style houses, which are built very tight to one another so that they create a solid structure for both residential and military defence purposes – to fend off attacks.

However, from the end of 19th century the region faced depopulation, accelerated further during Soviet period. And today, great portions of it lie almost abandoned, with only a few families staying in most of the villages.

The houses are interconnected to one other, which allowed the residents to move through and around the village quickly without having to go through the street or into open space. Particularly useful during a battle!

Some sides of the village were protected by a defence wall and the connecting bridges that you will see in my photographs, were built in such a way that allowed soldiers to quickly disassemble them and lock down the village during attacks.


 A DAY TO EXPLORE THE REGION

Waking to sore heads again, a theme for my “week off” it turned out. We had a day and a bit to explore the region, so we all opted to start in our garden. Checking out the cute village that lay before us.

We crossed the bridge and headed up the pathway into the town, and it was not long before the group were split up as each member went exploring each section, rooftop and staircase. I took several shots on my DSLR, which thankfully I decided to take along for the ride.

Once I climbed up onto one of the roofs to take my last photo I proceeded to fall back down the slippery steps, and then carefully exit the village. I wanted to get the Mavic 2 into the air.

We were not blessed with the best weather when in the region, each night were storms combined with heavy rain. So, I knew the best chance of good images was with the drone and I think that is how it turned out.

Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (19 of 46).jpg
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (18 of 46).jpg

THE CRYPTS OF ANATORI

We spent the afternoon out in the car, further down the track (by this stage the road had turned into a small path). Our first stop on the route was alongside two connecting rivers, The Crypts of Anatori.

This is not just another historical burial place. These disfigured tombs, full of bones hold an incredible story. A story of self-sacrifice, as the people buried themselves alive to save the lives of others – a courageous act.

Apparently, hundreds of years ago Anatori was village on the opposite side of the river Arghuni. It was a prosperous and lively village, but now all that is left is the sad remains of a few houses as in the 18th Century Anatori was de-populated as all the locals fell victim to a terrible plague that had spread the village.

The deadly disease, called Zhami (Time) by the locals was spreading fast. People were dying one after the other. When the villagers realised it was contagious, they decided not to run away from the village entirely but to lock themselves inside – so that the plague would not have the chance to spread! The dead were buried far from the village in these tombs below, on my photos.

Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (8 of 46).jpg
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (9 of 46).jpg

Probably the most incredible part of this tragedy is the fact that those villages whom were infected but still alive, walked here by themselves. By their own will, they laid down in the tombs and waited for death with dignity.

It is rumoured that only one 12-year-old boy made it away from the village unscathed, spending a few years in Tusheti before returning and settling in Shatili years later.

We spent around 30 minutes looking at, through and into the tombs. Which thankfully have had bars placed across the windows now – to stop people from stealing souvenirs.


MUTSO CASTLE

Before I lift the mood significantly, there are more crypts nearby to Mutso Castle that I won’t uncover the location of. These are still open, not bared – but hopefully one day, they shall be – because people just can not be trusted!

These are my shots of these additional crypts; however, I think these are more traditional burial sites as apposed to being linked to the plague we have discussed.

Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (13 of 46).jpg
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (14 of 46).jpg

It turns out that rehabilitation and maintenance works are being carried out in Georgia’s once abandoned village of Musto, costing around 3.7 million lari. But we still enjoyed the visit despite this, and it does need protecting of course.

Abandoned about a century ago, this beautiful and lonely tower visible among the mountains, with the valley below is one of the best photographs that I captured of this location. Although I can’t help but dream of what it looks like in the winter…

Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (23 of 46).jpg

We spent a total of around two hours exploring the castle and the surrounding village, which as you will see is situated on a very steep incline (as you can see below). We all went up to the first view point, with four of us then proceeding to climb further into the village and to the two remaining towers.

One of the other challenges that I had was finding angles to shoot the castle tower on the peak, as in some spots it looked flat and not 3D. The towers blending into the background almost, but eventually after some moving around, I found a couple of compositions that I liked.

Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (24 of 46).jpg
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (27 of 46).jpg
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (29 of 46).jpg

Prior to four of us climbing to the very top of the steep incline, I had actually had my final session with the drone for the day. Using up the second of my batteries to shoot some more images of the town and the surrounding peaks from above.

 
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (34 of 46).jpg
 

These are the images that I shot, again it is a shame the light was so flat and boring - but I wasn’t going to drive that road back in the dark - nor were any of the team going to either.

These are the images that I shot, again it is a shame the light was so flat and boring - but I wasn’t going to drive that road back in the dark - nor were any of the team going to either.

So, that just left us to completed our day back in the guesthouse, this time over chilli served with rice and yet more wine, although plenty of discussions were had between myself and George as to the correct way to cook rice, so answers in the comments below. Overall though, it was relaxing time before venturing back over the Datvisjvari pass again the following morning.

I shall leave you with the final few images from our drive out of the valley and back to civilization. Be warned, I shot this amazing tower a few times…

Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (40 of 46).jpg
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (43 of 46).jpg
Shatili, mutso & crypts by James Kerwin (37 of 46).jpg

Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this blog, I really hope that you enjoyed reading it.

Speak soon,

James.