The experience of going through the Abano Pass to reach Tusheti and back was probably the most nerve-wracking and adrenaline-pumping experience I had. I was praying half the time we were inside the 4wd vehicle hoping we don’t fall over the cliffs and have our memorial pictures on the side of the road where we fell. We were fortunate enough to have gotten a skilled and experienced driver to take us back and forth through the steep and winding Abano Pass.
What is Georgia’s Abano Pass?
The Abano Pass is this little known death road in Georgia which is quite surprising since many of those who knew of it considers it one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Our driver mentioned that 10 to 12 people attempting to cross the pass die every year. It’s the only road that connects the rest of Georgia to the isolated region of Tusheti.
The Abano Pass is full of winding roads, steep and sharp turns, and narrow cliffside roads with no barricades whatsoever that protect the vehicles from falling off the high cliffs. Oh, and it has an elevation of 2,850m or 9,350ft above sea level. This makes the Abano Pass one of the highest roads in Europe and even the world.
The pass is part of the central Caucasus Mountain range and is a ‘popular’ spot for thrill-seeking travelers like extreme cyclists or bikers. In our case, we wanted to visit the biggest settlement in Tusheti, the town of Omalo. There are no other roads to access the Tusheti region other than the Abano Pass so we were like why not?
It’s the highest Georgian road and we got to travel directly on the Caucasus Mountain range driving the 72km to reach Omalo. Plus, the sights can be beautiful especially when high up in the mountains and on the nearer parts to Omalo. And due to the remoteness of the Tusheti region, the way of living there hasn’t changed and is even considered archaic. Having that unique experience is a great motivation to go through the pass.
Again, we were extremely lucky to have an experienced driver who agreed to take us through the Abano Pass, wait for us in Omala for four to five days, and drive us to the Abano Pass again to take us back.
The pass is open through June to October. Outside of those months, it would be closed for passage due to heavy snow which causes roadblocks and damage. The only way to have access to the Tusheti region outside June to October would be through flying there via helicopter.
The Abano Pass is still an unpaved road so its prone to landslides, mud, and even spots that just slips away. The Georgian authorities receive constant emergency calls in the Abano Pass and regularly has to maintain the dangerous road for it to be passable, especially during the months when it’s open. It was perfect timing for us when we plan our trip to Omalo that the pass open for vehicles to drive through.
Our driver, Shatro said that he’s been driving the road through the Abano Pass for ten years. That information definitely made me feel safer. The pass is only accessible by offroad vehicles and you’ll need a 4 WD vehicle to get through it if you’re traveling in a group. There is also the option to take off-road bikes or cycle through the pass but that option isn’t for beginners or the light of heart.
Our First Experience Through the Abano Pass
The unpaved road of the Abano Pass starts at the village of Pshaveli which is just a short ride away from Tbilisi. We got on Shatro’s off-road 4 WD vehicle and buckled up. At the start of the road, maybe about the first 8km, the road isn’t paved but its solid rock and can even accommodate two vehicles side by side.
We passed by a bridge first and passed by several meadows where farmers are selling local goods such as honey and other products. There is another river crossing through a small bridge and at that point, the hard solid road is replaced by a narrow dirt road. The dirt path started to go higher and higher and become winding with many sharp and narrow turns. Through my window, I could see cliff edges and jagged ridges.
Along the dirt road, we passed by many memorial sites for those who passed in unfortunate accidents while crossing the Abano Pass. Shatro told us that about ten to twelve people die at the Abano Pass every year and that just two weeks ago, there were seven who died trying to cross the pass.
I don’t know what to do with that information. I just kinda sat there in the car and prayed that we don’t meet the same ends as them. Sometimes I think what am I doing here? I could die! I consider myself a daredevil, yes. But of those who traveled down this pass, I don’t want to be part of those who’ve fallen.
It’s really important to find a skilled and experienced driver to take you through the Abano Pass. They’ll literally have your life in their hands. Honestly, I was getting scared. The road is getting higher and higher. Up here the cliffs are getting deeper, the road seems to become narrower, and the turns sharper.
Despite the very real danger of driving through the Abano Pass, the beauty of the surroundings are undeniable and the views are hard to ignore. It brought me back to that bus experience in Langtang, Nepal and how at the end of a scary experience, it was worth it. I was sitting there wondering how long the road will go on but admiring the beautiful views at the same time.
The colorful foliage below gives the impression that it’s autumn in the middle of summer. At that point, I just chose to be distracted and relaxed by views of the foliage below. But then we passed by the memorial of the seven that fell two weeks earlier Shatro mentioned. They were all still very young. I saw that one of them was born in 1993.
After the grim memorial reminding me of my mortality, we passed by a beautiful waterfall going down the cliff. Mother Nature, what can I say, you are both beautiful and deadly. I remain sitting there praying as we go through this deadly but beautiful pass.
We encountered several waterfalls by then and then it started raining, but no, we were passing under a waterfall. I would never drive through this road on a bad day. I understand why there are so many landslides and accidents that happen here and why its closed the majority of the year and only opened during the summer.
The four of us were just sitting in silence at that point. We also passed several rivers that go through the road which were nerve-wracking.
We continue to drive higher and of course, it got colder. We encountered multiple herds of sheep by the hills and we saw huge dogs that look like wolves as well. We were basically hugging the cliffside this high up and I will say that the left side of the vehicle offers better views. We did a turn and the surroundings turned hilly and green like it just transformed.
We passed by the Torghva Rest Rooms and Torghva Baths which are exactly what it sounds like. They are restrooms and mineral baths located at the edge of the high cliff overlooking the valley below. We didn’t get to stop and check it out though. We had to reach Omalo as soon as possible.
We were still climbing higher up the mountain range until we reach its summit. We saw Crosses at the summit of the Abano Pass. I don’t know what they’re there for but its probably to show respect for those who fell going through the pass. We also didn’t get out of the vehicle to take a closer look.
By that point, we were literally driving through clouds going down the pass. After some scary parts, I begin to relax again and I even started to fall asleep. The road was following a stream and it seems to be a lot more stable compared to the previous areas we drove through.
Then the road opened up to this beautiful valley and Shatro said that we are in Omalo. Finally, we have arrived and it was so worth it, damn it! We were greeted by a guest house that looked quite fancy. It was beautiful. Omalo is beautiful.
Going Back to the Abano Pass
After our time in Omalo, I was feeling recharged and ready to retake the journey back through the Abano Pass. I was feeling a little more confident and relax for the drive back through the pass. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Rich gave me the front seat of the vehicle so I was enjoying the views on the first part of the drive back. But about one and a half hours in the drive a heavy fog came in. I could not see the road in front of us at all. I though Shatro was going to stop to wait for the fog to stop but he just drove slower. I was silently freaking out. All of my confidence and relaxed mindset have gone out the window and down below the cliffs.
I guess there just wasn’t any place to stop. It’s not like this was a two-way road. I literally couldn’t see a thing through my window, just cliff edges and nothing but pure white of the fog. This reminds me of the snaking roads of Montenegro or Lang Tang. The drive will be enjoyed during a clear day where you can admire the beautiful views but during a day this foggy, my stress levels are up high. I couldn’t wait for the drive to be over.
I was constantly looking at the time hoping and praying that we’ve arrived back at Pshaveli Village but we’re far from the end. I am now fully aware that we’re going through one of Europe’s most dangerous roads and understand why they had to have it closed for the winter.
Midway through the pass, Shatro stops the vehicle and picks up his phone. I was surprised that he has any signal at all. I definitely didn’t so if you’re thinking of taking this drive, definitely get Magti instead of Beeline. To make matters worse, when another vehicle passes by, Shatro has to move deadly close to the cliff and I swear my heart stops every time. My gosh.
I looked back at the vehicle and saw that Rich was sleeping. I remember our conversation the day before choosing if we’d rather see our vehicles plunge down the cliffs or just be sleeping throughout it all. He said he’d rather be sleeping so I thought damn, at least one of us is content.
We eventually managed to get back to Telavi in one piece or else I wouldn’t be here sharing my experience with you. The drive back took longer than the four hours it took for us to reach Omalo the first time.
I’m not sure if I’m ever going revisit this experience again but never say never. It definitely tested my nerves but I would say that the views up in the mountain range and the experience of visiting Omalo made everything worth it. But I’m deadset of never going through that pass when it’s foggy with zero visibility ever again. I’m just very thankful for our driver Shatro for getting us through that journey unharmed.