The hike alongside the Terek river into the Truso valley is breathtaking. The lush green valley, surrounded by soaring snow-capped peaks, has a beguiling natural beauty that is lent added mystique by ancient defensive towers and small Ossetian villages that dot the landscape of this spectacular region. Accompanied only by the sound of the river, the sense of peace and tranquility were overwhelming, but the abandoned and ruined village of Ketrisi tells a different story about the history of this area.
Walk too far down the valley and you’ll probably find yourself having a conversation with the Georgian military. Here, at the head of the valley, lies the breakaway region of South Ossetia. A separatist movement seeking independence from Georgia emerged in the region during late 1980s, but it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgian independence in 1991 that poured fuel on the fire and led to conflict. Thousands fled their homes to escape the fighting and South Ossetia declared independence.
Periodic fighting continued until 2008, when a nationalist Georgian president decided to subdue South Ossetia once and for all. The end result was the invasion of Georgia by Russian troops and the rapid defeat of the Georgian military. Russian forces remain in South Ossetia and the border between it and Georgia remains a militarised zone. This is inconvenient for walkers and a disaster for the region’s inhabitants, who have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods behind.
The eerie crumbling villages of the region are all that remain of once thriving mountain communities, although one or two homes seemed to be inhabited, and there is a newly reconstructed and fully functioning monastery in the valley. The entrance to the Truso valley is about 20km south of Stepantsminda and, the moment I left the main road, I found myself bouncing down rough tracks towards the tiny semi-inhabited village of Kvemo Okrokana.
The vast, open valley narrows to a virtually impassable point at the Truso Gorge, and my map said the route to the valley on the other side was a winding road over a big hill. It quickly became clear that this road was impassable. Large rocks had tumbled down the hillside blocking the route, and it looked like it hadn’t been used for some time. The reason for this only became clear when I discovered a new ‘road’ had been blasted out of the hillside above the river linking Kvemo Okrokana with the inner valley.
I left the 4×4 at the entrance to the village and walked along this road into the dramatic landscape of the gorge. From here it’s around 12km to the end of the valley, and I was very conscious that it would also be 12km back. I put that thought to the back of my mind and marvelled as the landscape unfolded. The walk through the gorge is around 4km long, and just as I was beginning to wonder if it ever ended I crossed a bridge into the inner valley.
It was like entering a strange and forgotten land. A feeling reinforced by the white, pink and yellow travertines, limestone deposits formed by natural mineral springs, dotting the ground. It’s a remarkable sight. I continued down the valley towards Ketrisi village, passing herds of cows and mineral springs. The view down the valley was magnificent, in the distance was Zakagori, a ruined fortress. As I walked though, the weather began to look ominous.
I was just past Ketrisi when large raindrops began to fall. I took shelter until it stopped and carried on my way. A few minutes later the heavens opened and rain turned to really quite large hailstones. The temperature plunged alarmingly. Time to turn tail and head back, the only problem being that the car was 10km away. I was pretty wet by the time I reentered the gorge, but here I had some luck – a 4×4 stopped and offered me a lift. I’ve rarely been more grateful for the kindness of strangers.