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Connecting the Caucasus

The region of Tusheti, spread across the peaks and valleys of the Caucasus Mountains in northeastern Georgia, is all but cut off from the outside world for seven months of the year. The one road in, through the treacherous Abano Pass, is impassable until the winter snows clear. Occasional visits by a Border Service helicopter are the only physical link through the long winter. The region is the ancestral home of the Tush people, traditionally nomadic shepherds who spend the warmer months in high, defensible alpine villages, and the long winters on sheltered lower slopes. Over the past several decades, the Tush have chosen to spend the winters in the lowland towns of Kvemo and Zemo-Alvani leaving most Tushetian mountain villages empty in the winter. Just a few hardy villagers brave the snow and the isolation until spring when the Abano Pass opens again. Then, local flood back up to the highlands, with shepherds making a ten-day trek to bring their flocks back up to higher pastures. Young people who are used to having electricity, indoor plumbing and gaming consoles for the rest of the year spend summer mornings milking cows and days on horseback. Despite the conveniences and comforts of life in the lowlands, there is a palpable sense that for most Tushetians, the mountains are their real home.

Tusheti is famed for its traditional cheeses and the quality of its wool, but production volumes and access to markets are limited. Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy - simple seasonal guesthouses abound in the region's villages, catering for summer hikers who come to experience the beauty of the Caucasus. But the tourism sector is also constrained by the very remoteness that is its main attraction.

A project is underway to bring high-speed Internet access to Tusheti. An initiative of the Tusheti Development Fund, a local organisation of volunteers, supported by the Internet Society, a global non-profit, it involves hauling materials across the rugged terrain on horseback and volunteers camping on remote peaks while they construct masts and install the solar-powered devices that will beam a signal across the region. In parallel, the World Bank is funding Internet literacy training for business owners and providing some of them with computers.

It is hoped that the Internet will provide a boost to the tourism sector, allowing businesses to advertise and transact online, and opening up markets for traditional products such as wool and cheese. By increasing income-generating opportunities for Tushetians, supporters of the project hope to counter the rural-urban drift that is seeing young people move away to cities leaving only the old behind.

Detractors, however, feel that Tusheti's simplicity and remoteness should be preserved, and that the modern world should be kept at bay. Will the Internet ultimately prove to be a way to preserve a history and a way of life or could it corrupt one of the last isolated regions of the Caucasus?

Nyani Quarmyne was commissioned by the Internet Society to accompany some of the local volunteers and Internet Society staff in the early phases of this ambitious project to bring high-speed internet to some of the most inaccessible terrain in the world.
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