During my lifetime, I hitchhiked many different original vehicles, from a sailing boat, to a police car or even an ambulance. But the most unbelievable might be the day I ended up hitchhiking a helicopter.
At that period I was hitchhiking around the world, I had started from my hometown in France about 3 months before a journey that brought me all the way to Indonesia and where I met HiuYing. I had been in Georgia for 2 weeks at that point, and after chatting with locals, I realized they were unanimous about visiting the Tusheti National Park.
First, hitchhiking by car
I had plenty of time on my hands, so I set for this off-the-beaten track destination located near the Dagestan region of Russia. As always I was hitchhiking and I spent the first night invited by a local to stay in a museum in Kvemo Alvani, one of the last villages before entering Tusheti. I learned later that most of the people living in the Tusheti National Park go back to Alvani to spend the winter.
The next morning I raised my thumb up, and as usual in Georgia I got picked up very fast, this time by a truck. I was in the trunk with a few workers. They dropped me In Pshaveli, where the concrete road stops and give way to a dirt road leading to Tusheti. This road has been named one of the most dangerous roads in the world, with the highest point, the Abano pass, as high as 2.850 meters. People die taking this road regularly. The road is closed from October to April due to the harsh winter and is driveable only by 4×4 cars. From Pshaveli to Omalo, the first village in Tusheti, there’s a distance of 72 kilometers.
I stood there in Pshaveli, and quickly got a ride. Unfortunately, after about 10-12 kilometers together, the occupants of the car let me understood that I had to get out of the car. I accepted my faith, and assumed the car was just too heavy to make it on the road. Instead of turning back I decided to walk towards Tusheti. I promptly realized how little traffic there was on the road, and how most cars were already full of people and provisions. But after an hour or two walking, a guy alone in his Mitsubishi Delica picked me up.
And then, the road collapsed…
He dropped me several hours later in Omalo, the “capital” of the Tusheti region. There I started my journey around Tusheti, walking between several towns, camping and staying at local’s home a couple of times. One night it rained a lot, we could hear the ferocious thunder. The next morning, a rumor quickly spread by word of mouth : the only road going out of Tusheti had collapsed after a landslide. As I had plenty of time, I did not worry much about it. The first news were encouraging, telling us that it would take a day or two to repair. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I soon realized I was trapped in the middle of the Caucasus mountain.
As I was traveling without a phone, I started to worry about how my family would react to the lack of news. Thankfully, one morning a local elected politician came to Omalo by helicopter, and I was able to call my family and reassure them. At that point, most tourists were already running out of patience. Not all of us had as much time as I did. Some had to catch a flight back home or get back to work.
Hitchhiking a helicopter, or paying for a helicopter ride?
I was in the village of Shenako, when I noticed a lot of agitation in the morning. The family that was hosting me told me that I had to get to Omalo as fast as possible. Thanks to hand gesture, I understood that an helicopter was on its way. I started to walk towards Omalo, but quickly a car passed me by and told me to hop on. All the tourists were gathered in Omalo, where an helicopter had already arrived. The tourists in distress had called a private helicopter to get them out of here. The price was about 200US$ per person, definitely not a sum I was ready to pay.
I wasn’t the only one not willing to pay an hefty price to get out of here. Actually, it was a pretty amazing area, but now the officials were telling us that it might take multiple weeks to fix the road. The weather was perfect that day, the sun was shining, and we got the word that the weather was going to severely worsen over the next few days. Therefore, a dozen of other people and me decided to walk out of Tusheti. Remember, that was 72 kilometers to get to the closest village. So we asked the local guards to drop us with their cars as close as possible to the disrupted patch of road.
It seemed like we were about to get a positive answer, but local guards suddenly and repeatedly told us to wait. That’s what we did, and in the end they finally came to us with good news. An helicopter was going to come and rescue locals & tourists trapped in the region.
I waited for a couple of helicopters to go, and soon it was my turn. There I was, hitchhiking a helicopter !! I know it was just a ride in a helicopter, but for me it just felt like I had just manage to hitchhike a helicopter ! That was an incredible experience and I spent most of the journey looking by window, taking pictures with my camera and my eyes.
We landed in a field. I took a few pictures of the helicopter, and then started to walk with my thumb up. One of the first persons to give me a ride decided to invite me for an unforgettable Georgian meal. That was the last meal I’ve ever had in Georgia. That day I kept going, and chose not to stop in Tbilisi since I had already spent some days there. I ended my day by arriving quite late in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
A few years later, hitchhiking a helicopter is still one of the most incredible memories I have. While writing this article, I found that a few Georgian newspapers talked about the evacuation of 620 tourists and how tourists were airlifted out of Tusheti. I would definitely recommend you to visit the Tusheti National Park. It is still not overrun by tourism, landscapes are fabulous, and Georgians are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.