When I first arrived in Georgia in 2001, there were two remote regions in the Caucasus tourists never ventured uninvited. Svaneti, the untamed region at the top of the world, which derided central authority and robbed unwelcomed visitors out of a kind of ancient custom, and the Pankisi Gorge, which became a lawless region in the mid 1990s after the arrival of Chechen refugees and fighters from the wars with Russia, and with the complicity of Georgian organized criminal networks and government officials. Whereas Svaneti became a safe and popular tourist destination by 2005, Pankisi still cannot shake its reputation for being hotbed of violence, crime and Islamic fundamentalism.
I was in Pankisi last week working on a story about Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen), who has gained renown as one of the fiercest rebel commanders in Syria. But Omar is not really a Chechen. He is a Georgian with the birth name Tarkhan Batirashvili, born in a Pankisi village. The fact Omar has made headlines around the world is not good news for the people of Pankisi, who are trying to put their militant history behind them and forge a new repute as ecotourism hotspot.
Because there is no room in a story about a Georgian-born jihadist to mention how beautiful the river valley is and how kind the people of Pankisi are, I thought I’d do it here and now. 10 years ago, Pankisi was the one of the last places you would dare go. Today it should be one of the first.