Pankisi Gorge is probably the most misunderstood place in Georgia. After years trying to shake off an unwarranted bad reputation, the community is now embracing tourism as a way to set the record straight.
I first became aware of the Pankisi Valley Tourism and Development Association the same way most people do – through Facebook. Their slick graphics, beautiful photography and well-written stories caught my attention.
I didn’t know it at the time, but all this promotion – and most of the work going on behind the scenes – can be attributed to one woman, a Pankisi local who is on a mission to change the way people think about this part of Georgia and the people who live there.
The concept of community based tourism and homestays is very familiar to me. I’ve visited plenty of projects of this nature in Cambodia and Vietnam. I had never heard of such an initiative in Georgia, though.
I reached out to the Association, hoping I could do something to help promote their work. Almost a year later, I finally got a chance to visit Pankisi Gorge for myself.
This post recalls my experiences in Pankisi and the insights I gleaned from the local people I met there. My intention is not only to introduce you to Pankisi Gorge, which stands up as a wonderful, off-beat destination to visit in Georgia. I also want to share this community’s story of perseverance, and show you what I consider a case study for tourism ‘done right’.
At the end of the page, you’ll find some practical tips for planning a visit to Pankisi.
A very brief history of Pankisi and the Kists
One of the things I love most about Georgia and the Caucasus region as a whole is how culturally diverse it is. Pankisi is a great example. The religion (Sufism), language (Chechen) and customs practiced by the residents of this valley are totally distinct from even their closest neighbours.
Majority of the families who live in Pankisi are Kists, an ethnic minority group with roots in Chechnya. Chechen and Ingush people, often referred to collectively as Vainakh, have their ancestral lands in the rugged mountains directly north of Pankisi.
Vainakh people first migrated from the mountains in the 13th century, fleeing Mongol invasion. In the 1800s, the Vainakh again turned to the steep mountains and deep gorges of northern Georgia for refuge. This time, they walked further south into Pankisi Gorge, a 10 kilometre valley that runs down from the Greater Caucasus mountains.
Christened ‘Kists’, they settled five villages in the valley, one for each of the main clans. These five communities wrap around the Alazani River as it trails through the gorge, linked by a single main road.
When war broke out in Chechnya in the 1990s, it hit very close to home for the Pankisi community. Many families fleeing Russia sought refuge in Georgia during and after the conflict. It’s thought that 85 percent of all Chechen refugees ended up in Pankisi.
This brought a multitude of fresh problems to a community already under social and economic strain. For the first time, crime and violence became a problem.
It was around this time rumours started flying about Afghani insurgents (and Osama bin Laden himself, according to some news reports) hiding out in Pankisi.
The community did what it could to defend itself, but the damage was done: Pankisi was branded a terrorist hideout.
Life in Pankisi Gorge today
Crime and internal conflict eventually came to a peaceful end, and most of the refugees left Georgia for Europe. Now, crime in the gorge is unheard of – not virtually, but literally. Locals joked when a police station was built nearby, knowing the officers stationed there would have nothing to do.
Despite this, Pankisi is still looked down on as unsafe and unruly – certainly no place for tourists. Kists still bear the heavy burden of social stigma.
Despite being safe and having an overwhelmingly warm sense of community, Pankisi isn’t an easy place to live. Most families subsist off the land. The valley is fertile but narrow – there’s not enough room to scale-up agriculture, nor are there any factories or foreign investments in Pankisi.
There are few opportunities overall, especially for young people. Unemployment sits at a shocking 95 percent.
A lot of Kists are putting their faith in community based tourism to turn the situation in Pankisi around. The vision – in many ways the vision of one woman, as you’ll soon see – is to use tourism as a pathway towards sustainable income.
But more than that, bringing tourists to Pankisi Gorge is helping to alter perceptions and reverse the tide of negative media attached to the Kist community.
Changing the narrative
Before my visit to Pankisi, I was told to be sensitive when photographing people. Most locals I met were happy to pose for a photo, but many people prefer not to have their picture taken. As we walked down the main street of Jokolo village one day, a young boy shied away from my camera. Later, I found out why.
Correspondents have been coming to Pankisi since the 1990s to cover the Chechen War. But most of them, I’m told, never really took the time to get to know residents. Instead, news reports perpetuated negative stereotypes and recycled misinformation. Many journalists pursued the shock factor instead of the truth.
People in Pankisi grew understandably wary of foreigners. Many refused to have their picture taken, lest it end up associated with a bad news story.
By all accounts, this had a hugely damaging effect on the community’s psyche. Action had to be taken to break the cycle.
Every movement needs a leader
To tell this story properly, I have to introduce you to Nazy.
She’s difficult to describe: Softly spoken and gracious, yet extremely passionate and fiery when she needs to be. Nazy grew up in Pankisi and worked as a lawyer in Tbilisi before returning to her home village, Jokolo, to start her own business – Pankisi’s first homestay.
It was Nazy who had the idea to set up the Pankisi Valley Tourism and Development Association, the body that now drives business and investment in the gorge. It was Nazy who started ‘The Kists of Pankisi Valley’, a photo-documentary and travelling exhibition that offers people an opportunity to tell their own story in their own words.
And it’s Nazy who has helped half a dozen other households in Pankisi set up their own guesthouses. By and large, it’s the women of Pankisi Gorge who are the ones working to make tourism here a success.
“I couldn’t just sit in Tbilisi. I felt a responsibility to help my community,” Nazy told us one night. Tired of the way journalists were portraying Pankisi, she stopped hosting them at her family’s home.
She decided to open up the guesthouse to tourists instead, believing that if people could come and see Pankisi for themselves, they would no longer believe everything they read online or saw on TV.
Everyone – including the government – was pessimistic. So in the absence of support, Nazy did everything herself. She travelled around Georgia to learn from other guesthouses. She created her own website and marketing materials, and has done an incredible job promoting the homestay.
She worked tirelessly to get the local tourism board on her side, but it was years before anyone would even return her phone calls. When they finally responded, Nazy asked why it had taken three or four years for them to get back to her. The response was always the same: ‘We were afraid’.
The first tourists to Pankisi Gorge in 2013 – a total of 125 people – stayed at Nazy’s Guesthouse. Every year, the number of visitors grows and grows. Thanks to Nazy’s hard work, Pankisi now receives support from the government in the form of small loans to set up new homestays.
In 2018, Nazy finally got the recognition she deserves when she was awarded Best Community Based Tourism in Georgia’s National Tourism Awards.
Can tourism break prejudice?
Nazy is very clear in her mission to re-frame the way the world sees Pankisi Gorge – and the way Kists see themselves.
After one prominent guidebook wrote a review of her guesthouse that did little more than perpetuate the myths she’s trying to push back on, she wasn’t shy about bringing it to their attention. She would rather not be mentioned at all than have Pankisi portrayed this way.
Spending time in Pankisi, walking the streets of Jokolo village where the homestay is located, we had a chance to meet other people in the community. If they were skeptical of tourism at first, most now seem enthusiastic about its potential. Nazy’s hypothesis that interacting with people in Pankisi would be enough to shift one’s focus is absolutely true – there are so many inspiring individuals in Jokolo and beyond.
At the Roddy Scott Foundation English language school, we met three teachers preparing for a new semester of lessons. Students in Pankisi rank among the best for English in the whole of Georgia.
Then there’s the village elder who started a small Ethnology Museum, the first of its kind in the area, to house his collection of cultural objects and artifacts excavated from the area. His motivation, he told us, is to try and keep Kist culture alive by educating young people about their roots.
Inside the home of Zizi, a master artisan, we got a quick lesson in traditional Chechen felt-making. Zizi and other craftspeople like her – as well as beekeepers and cheese-makers – have joined the tourism association to boost their incomes. Tourism is also creating jobs for drivers, guides, and an opportunity for families to rent out their horses.
Visiting these homes and institutions is part of the Pankisi Gorge experience. Nazy organises cultural tours for her guests, which are a wonderful introduction to the area.
Our guide, Bilal, a student at the local high school, also took us into the hills to visit Pankisi’s amphitheatre and the ruins of an old watch tower. There are lots of hiking opportunities in the gorge – including five marked trails that opened in 2019.
The future of Pankisi Gorge
I’m a huge believer in the power of travel to re-shape perceptions. I’ve seen time and time again how tourism can empower people to change their self-perceptions, often re-shaping entire communities.
I can see this bearing out in Pankisi.
Tourism is growing, especially in Jokolo village. More and more families are getting involved with the help of grants and Nazy’s mentorship. The addition of conference facilities – another one of Nazy’s bright ideas – is bringing NGOs and businesses to the area, opening up more opportunities for Georgians to visit as well as foreign tourists.
Perceptions about Pankisi are slowly shifting.
Another one of Nazy’s goals is to encourage young Kists to return to Pankisi once they’ve finished their studies instead of staying in Tbilisi or moving abroad. More and more of them are interested in tourism-related degrees, which is a great sign for the future.
Which is great, because Pankisi has awesome potential. As well as being adjacent to Georgia’s already-popular wine region, some of the country’s most pristine nature areas are right on Pankisi’s doorstep, including a reserve of ancient Batsara Yew Trees.
People no longer warn tourists to steer clear of Pankisi. And locals who were once circumspect about foreigners have grown comfortable with welcoming outsiders into their community and in many cases, into their homes.
Kists, like Georgians and other ethnic minorities in the region, have a long tradition of hospitality. This is one of the things Nazy, her colleagues and family are most proud of. And it’s what they would most like for Pankisi to be known for.
Practical information for visiting Pankisi Gorge
If you’re interested in visiting Pankisi, here is some helpful information for planning a visit.
How to get to Pankisi Gorge
Pankisi Gorge is located in Kakheti province, about 2.5 hours by road from Tbilisi or just one hour from Telavi.
By marshrutka, first travel from Tbilisi to Telavi (see this post for full instructions) before changing to another van in Telavi. Alternatively, you can take a taxi from Telavi to Jokolo for about 25 GEL per car.
A seat in a shared taxi from Tbilisi (or travelling the opposite way) costs 15 GEL per person. Nazy can help you organise taxis in either direction.
Where to stay in Pankisi Gorge
Nazy’s Guesthouse, pictured above, is much more than just a place to stay in Pankisi – it’s the epicentre of the community. Nazy is a wonderful host (if you haven’t got that already!), a great communicator, and can help with organising activities in and around the gorge.
The homestay itself is one of the most comfortable I’ve been to in Georgia. Set in Nazy’s family home, there are three rooms to choose from, including a private double and two large bedrooms that sleep up to 6 people. Shared bathrooms are brand new, and there is plenty of outdoor space for relaxing. Delicious home-cooked breakfasts, lunches and dinners are prepared in the family kitchen.
Rooms start from 45 GEL/night and can be reserved directly via Nazy’s website.
What to wear, bring & other tips
Nazy’s website is incredibly detailed and covers pretty much everything you need to know. Some key points to remember are:
- Pankisi is a dry community – alcohol is not permitted
- Guests should dress modestly, covering legs and shoulders when possible (more info in my Georgia packing guide)
- Shoes shouldn’t be worn inside – slippers are provided
- Be sensitive when photographing people – always ask first
Using Pankisi Gorge as a gateway to Tusheti
As well as the cultural tour, Nazy can also organise expeditions to Tusheti Nature Reserve. Remote and notoriously difficult to get to, Tusheti is only accessible by road for a few months of the year. From Pankisi, you can travel up on horseback instead on a guided multi-day tour.
You can find detailed information about the various itineraries on Nazy’s website.