Pankisi Valley Travel Guide
Pankisi Travel Guide was originally published in 2023.
Scoring a verdant cleft into the Greater Caucasus Mountains, inhabited by the Kist, and home to some of Gerogia’s starkest mountain scenes, the Pankisi Valley is one of the country’s most spectacular locations.
Located in the north of the Kakheti Region, just opposite the border from Chechnya, the Pankisi Valley is a truly unique and interesting part of Georgia to explore that doesn’t make it onto most Georgia itineraries.
In this guide, find everything you need to know to plan your visit to the Pankisi Valley, including helpful tips, transport details, the best things to do, and excellent hiking route information.
- About Pankisi Valley
- The Best Time to Visit Pankisi Valley
- How Long to Stay in Pankisi Valley
- How to Get to the Pankisi Valley From Tbilisi or Telavi
- Getting Around the Pankisi Valley
- Where to Stay in the Pankisi Valley
- Food to Try in the Pankisi Valley
- Things to do in Pankisi Valley
- Friday Kist Women's Sufi Zikr Ceremony
- Old Duisi Mosque
- Abu Bakr As-Siddik Mosque (New Duisi Mosque)
- Duisi World War II Memorial & Amphitheatre
- Pankisi Valley Ethnographic Museum
- Duisi and Khalatsani Ruins
- Zizi's Felt Studio
- Around the Pankisi Valley
- Batsara Nature Reserve
- Khadori (Makhvali) Waterfall
- Mount Tbatana
- Sakisto Lake
- Khorojos Tavi
- Tusheti National Park
- Chkhtana, Nakerela, and Beyond to Tusheti
About Pankisi Valley
The Pankisi Valley is predominantly populated by Kists, who are descended from Chechens who migrated from Chechnya to Georgia in the mid-19th century.
The majority of the Kists settled in the Pankisi Gorge, in a scattering of villages that all sit a 10 kilometer sting going down the valley.
The Kists speak a dialect of Chechen and have developed their cuisine, and blended Vainakh and Sunni traditions.
There are 8 major villages along the Pankisi Valley with Duisi, Jokolo, Birkiani, Zibakhevi, Khalatsani, and Omalo being Kist villages. THe others being Dumasturi and Tsinubani.
The nearest town to the Pankisi Valley is Akhmeta and the nearest city is Telavi.
The Pankisi Valley also provides access to two of Georgia’s National Parks including Batsara and Tusheti.
The Best Time to Visit Pankisi Valley
The best time of year to visit the Pankisi Valley is later spring (May, early June) and early fall (September, early October), that said, the main season for visiting Pankisi is between May and November.
The mid-summer months (June-August) are a bit on the warm side but great for camping and hiking further afield.
Springtime in Pankisi (March and April) is generally pleasant temperature-wise but you can expect a lot of rain, especially in March, and the occasional snowstorm.
Winter is quite cold and snowy in Pankisi which will limit most activities.
In terms of which days of the week, it is best to plan your visit to fall on a Friday if you would like to attend a Zikr ceremony.
How Long to Stay in Pankisi Valley
How long you stay in Pankisi Valley just depends on your interests and how much time you want to dedicate to the area.
Most travelers should be content with 2-3 days spent taking in the valley.
Those that want to dig a bit deeper into Kist culture and/or take on multi-day hikes may need a week or possibly more.
How to Get to the Pankisi Valley From Tbilisi or Telavi
Getting to Pankisi is quite straightforward.
In the high season, there are usually two marshrutkas per day from Tbilisi to Pankisi Valley from Tbilisi’s Ortachala Bus Station.
The Tbilisi-Pankisi Marshrutka departs Tbilisi at 07:30 and 14:20 and takes about two hours to reach the most commonly visited villages of Duisi and Jokolo.
The cost of the Tbilisi-Pankisi marshrutka is around 18-20 GEL per seat.
If you will be going the Pankisi Valley from Telavi (or needed to in our case as we were there in March the afternoon marshrutka to Pankisi Valley wasn’t running from Tbilisi that day), you will find marshrutkas bound for the villages of Pankisi at the Telavi New Bazaar.
The cost of the Telavi-Pankisi marshrutka is 3 GEL per seat.
For full details on the Telavi-Pankisi marshrutka, check out my post about getting from Telavi to Pankisi.
Getting Around the Pankisi Valley
I found getting around in the Pankisi Valley quite easy.
You will occasionally see a marshrutka plowing the route but honestly for longer distances hitchhiking was insanely easy.
I walked only a few minutes in Duisi on the main valley road before a car stopped and offered me a ride as I was headed off to Zhibakhevi to begin a trek to the summit of Khorojos Tavi. On the return, I didn’t even get to Zibakhevi and a van stopped on its way back to Omalo and dropped me close to Duisi.
If your distances are short, walking or renting a bicycle is the best way to get from place to place.
Luckily the villages in the Pankisi Valley are quite close together.
If you need to go a distance and don’t want to try and utilize marshrutkas or try your thumb at hitchhiking, you can always have your accommodation in Pankisi phone a taxi driver that you can hire.
Where to Stay in the Pankisi Valley
There are a handful of guesthouses in the Pankisi Valley to choose from.
For those planning to base themselves from Duisi, I can recommend Guesthouse Melissa after having stayed there. Khatuna, the owner takes great care of her guests and she cooks some delicious traditional meals (her home-cooked meals can be arranged on request).
Guesthouse Melissa features a beautiful garden to relax in and Khatuna can arrange for walking, horseback, hiking, and other tours in the Pankisi Valley.
Another highlight of Guesthouse Melissa is a female Zikr is held in the home on Friday afternoons.
The ever-popular Nazy’s Guesthouse is a great option for those basing themselves in Jokolo. Nazy’s also offers cultural walks in the valley, trekking, horseback, and camping tours, and even has camping gear rental available.
Leila Guesthouse in Jokolo is also highly recommended and can offer many of the same tours and excursions that Nazy’s and Melissa’s do.
There are also great spots to camp further up the valley and you can find them marked on many map apps.
Pankisi Camping is located just a bit north of the village of Zibakhevi on the opposite side of the Alazani River. Founded by female tour guide and entrepreneur, Mano Kavtaradze.
Pankisi Camping is a great place to stay for those planning to explore more of the upper reaches of the Pankisi Valley and on into the Tusheti and Batsura areas.
Food to Try in the Pankisi Valley
Kist cuisine in the Pankisi Valley is unique and blends aspects of both Chechen and Georgian cooking.
Many of these dishes you will try in the Pankisi Valley are unique to this area and won’t be found anywhere else in Georgia.
The best way to try any of the Kist dishes is of course to request them as a meal at your guesthouse. Your host will likely even offer you a lesson while making them too.
- Zhizhig Galnash: Dumpings filled with mutton.
- Ghabaak Chahbilgish: Khatchapuri stuffed with pumpkin.
- Khuong: Called Khanzili in Georgian. A soup-like dish featuring several locally grown vegetables and herbs, including jonjoli.
- Kisturi Ludi: Kist beer is an ancient fermented drink made from locally grown fruits and wild herbs. Do note that despite it being called beer it is non-alcoholic. You can try Kisturi Ludi at the Kisturi Beer Brewery in Omolo, the Kist Beer Garden in Duisi, and at Cafe Pankisi.
- Nitti Khinkali: A dumpling stuffed with nettles and amaranth.
- Ahar Khudar: Chechen porridge of fried cornflour and butter mixed with cheese.
Things to do in Pankisi Valley
Duisi is the largest village in the Pankisi Valley home to over 2,000 people.
As with being the largest community in a somewhat remote area, you can expect to find the most services and amenities here such as shops, pharmacies, and so on.
Friday Kist Women’s Sufi Zikr Ceremony
Something that makes the Pankisi Valley and its Kist inhabitants unique is that it’s the only location in the South Caucasus where women are allowed to perform Zikr inside the mosque.
Zikr is an ancient spiritual ceremony entrenched in Sufi mysticism in which Islamic hymns are chanted repeatedly in order to to achieve unity with Allah.
The most well-known Zikr ceremony in the Pankisi Valley is held at noon in Duisi’s Old Mosque on Fridays and is led by a woman named Raisa.
This Zikr is performed in the Kist dialect and involves chanting and singing various hymns while clapping and moving about in a circle (you can even expect to be asked to join the clapping and circular walk).
The chants and songs that are sung during the Zikr call for peace and forgiveness, especially “Marshua Kavkas” meaning Peace in the Caucasus.
Another Zikr is also held on Fridays starting at about 1 pm at Guesthouse Melissa as well. We stayed so long at the one at the Old Mosque that we were only able to catch the tail end of the Zikr held at our guesthouse.
Of course, men perform Zikr in the Pankisi Valley and their ceremonies can be attended by visitors as well.
Unfortunately, there aren’t much to any Kists of the younger generation in Pankisi participating in this unique Zikr which is putting it at risk of becoming extinct as most of the practitioners are aged 60-90.
The Kists generally do welcome visitors to their Zikr and are happy to share a special tradition, but do make sure to dress appropriately as this is a religious ceremony (I wore a mid-calf length dree with leggings and a headscarf and my friend Bekah had on loose trousers and a full-length trench coat style jacket with a headscarf). Asking before photographing is advised too.
Old Duisi Mosque
Tucked into the neighborhood, not far off the main valley road cutting through Duisi is the first mosque to arrive in Pankisi Valley, the Old Mosque that dates back to 1902.
The Old Mosque is quite distinctive with its unique red and black brick embellished minaret.
Visitors are welcome to the Old Mosque, especially on Fridays when the Zikr is held here as mentioned earlier in the post.
Abu Bakr As-Siddik Mosque (New Duisi Mosque)
Impossible to miss, the Abu Bakr As-Siddik Mosque (New Mosque) is located on the main valley road in Duisi. Constructed in 2002 with funding from Saudi Arabia, New Duisi Mosque is a world away from the Old Mosque despite it only being half a kilometer down the road.
Gaining the nickname of the “Wahabbi Mosque”, the Abu Bakr As-Siddik Mosque teaches a much stricter “pure” form of Islam that views the local Zikr ceremonies and other traditions among the Kists to be a pagan ritual.
The New Duisi Mosque is more popular and better frequented than the new mosque which highlights a more conservative shift in the Pankisi Valley, particularly among the younger generation.
Duisi World War II Memorial & Amphitheatre
Sat high on a ridge on the north end of Duisi, just past the cemetery you will find a Great Patriotic War (WWII) memorial and an amphitheater.
The WWII Memorial was erected in 1985 to honor soldiers from the Pankisi Valley and nearby Akhmeta who lost their lives during the battle.
The amphitheater hosts local celebrations and festivals throughout the year.
If anything the walk over here is well worth the effort at sunset for an elevated view of the beautiful valley below. Don’t be surprised if men on horseback rally past you on the way up or down either.
Pankisi Valley Ethnographic Museum
Curated by Khaso Khangoshvili, a local expert historian on the Pankisi Valley, the Pankisi Ethnographic Museum exhibits archeological finds from around the valley as well as locally made handicrafts, carpets, antiques, and other artifacts relevant to the Kist culture.
The Ethnographic Museum is open by appointment, so have your guesthouse or host make a call to help set that up. While I didn’t visit the Ethnographic Museum since I decided to go try to summit Khorojo Tavi, my friend visited and said it was lovely.
Duisi and Khalatsani Ruins
Several ruins dot the landscape around Duisi and Khalatsani, including three watch towers that were used to keep a lookout for potential invaders.
Additionally, you can find ancient churches, antique stone homes, and other old structures that are lying in various stages of ruin, some dating back to the reign of Queen Tamar.
From the above-mentioned amphitheater and WWII memorial, it’s possible to continue uphill on the west side of the valley to one of the Duisi Watchtowers from which you’ll have grand views of the Alazani River and Duisi Village.
There is a ruin on a hill in Khalatsani, just across the bridge from Duisi, that is easy to reach and is a perfect place for a picnic.
You can also get to the Khalatsani Fortress with a nice hike from Duisi via Khalatsani Village.
Zizi’s Felt Studio
Felt-making is a handicraft practiced by the Kist as well as the Chechens on the other side of the border.
Of course, Zizi is the most renowned artisan from the Pankisi Valley, known for her intricate and traditional feltworks.
She features her works out of her at-home studio and even offers visitors the chance to see the process of making felt and sells some of her works from her studio.
Felt-making is even taught to children in school here in the Pankisi Valley in hopes to keep the art alive.
I didn’t get a chance to visit myself (as I mentioned before I decided to go up Khorojos Tavi), my friend I was traveling with go the chance to).
Jokolo is another popular village in the Pankisi Valley to stay in and visit and is located less than 3 kilometers from Duisi.
It’s a bit smaller than Duisi but offers shops where you can pick up basic items.
St. George’s Church
There is a small Christian minority out here in the Pankisi Valley, though most can be found in Birkiani.
St. George’s Church dates back to the 19th century but is no longer in use, however, it is maintained by a local family in Jokolo as they see it as an important monument.
Jokolo Corn Mill
Corn is undeniably a part of the Kist cuisine out here in Pankisi Valley.
If you find yourself wandering around on the north side of Jokolo near the Alazani River bank you may stumble across an old corn mill.
These heavy mill stones like this are used to crush corn to be used in several Kist and Chechen dishes.
Omalo is a small village sat just across the river from Birkiani, accessible by a bridge over the Alazani River (there’s another one in Jokolo that can get you over there too).
Kisturi Beer Brewing
If you want to try and see a bit more about how it’s made, the Kist beer mentioned previously in this post is located in Omalo.
Run by Shengeli Toxosashvili, Kisturi Beer Brewery offers Kist beer tastings and even offers tours of its production facility.
Around the Pankisi Valley
Pankisi Walking Tour
A walking tour, led by a Kist guide is a great way to get to know the Pankisi Valley and its traditions, day-to-day life, and history a bit better.
The tours can range from half day to full day and can be arranged on request in several languages by your guesthouse.
Horseback Riding Tours
The Pankisi Valley is one of Georgia’s best destinations for horseback riding as horse riding is a big part of Kist culture.
On request from Pankisi Adventure Treks or from your guesthouse you can arrange horseback riding tours around the Pankisi Valley.
Horseback riding tours can range from single-day excursions to nearby villages, overnight trips to Batsara Nature Reserve, to multi-day camping trips to Tusheti National Park.
Kist cemeteries are a special place to visit during your time in the Pankisi Valley.
The oldest of the Pankisi Valley’s cemeteries is located in Jokolo, however, each village has its own.
Hiking in the Pankisi Valley
Pankisi Valley is a trekker’s paradise with many trails that suit just about every physical ability.
Whether it’s a short walk in the valley, a trek along a well-marked path, mountain summits, multi-day itineraries, or hikes off the beaten path there is a hike for just about everyone here.
Below are a few options for trekking in the Pankisi Valley.
Batsara Nature Reserve
In addition to the horseback riding trips into Batsara on offer, there are lovely hiking trails in the area too including the trek to Mount Tbatana and to Sakisto Lake, both of which lie on the fringe of Batsara Nature Reserve.
Khadori (Makhvali) Waterfall
Located at the northern end of the Pankisi Valley, the hike to Khadori Waterfall is a nice and gentle walk along the last bit of the main valley road (so it is possible to drive here in theory).
Khadori Waterfall is about 3.6 km from the village of Khadori, so plan for a 7.2 km round-trip trek.
Those looking to make the summit up 2,450 meter Mount Tbatana can do so on a two-day, 33 km loop trek that begins just north of Zibakhevi (another option is to do it as a one-way hike that ends in the village of Khadori).
The main trailhead for Mount Tbatana is signposted along the main valley road and begins from the same spot where the trek to Sakisto Lake begins from.
There is an alternative route to Mount Tbatana as well that begins from the village of Khadori.
If hiking up Tbatana in the summer months, you will run into local shepherds who use the pastures along the route to graze their animals. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited in to watch their cheese-making techniques up here.
As mentioned above, Sakisto Lake sits on the main route to Mount Tbatana.
From the trailhead, Lake Sakisto is about a 13 km walk away in one direction. The shores of the lake can make sure a great spot to camp.
Along the main valley road between Zibakhevi and Khadori, you will find a bridge crossing over the Alazani River (just north of the massive power plant).
This is the beginning of the trek to Khorojo (as well as Khorjos Tavi). It’s a 7 km trek out and back along a well-trodden old road bed through the forest.
Khorojo is a beautiful and secluded summer pasture surrounded by walnut trees and used by local shepherds in the Pankisi Valley.
Khorojos Tavi is a 2,940 meter summit that is accessible via the same Khorojo Trailhead mentioned above.
Beyond the summer pasture, a sometimes difficult-to-locate path meanders up through the forest and onto a ridge.
Once out of the forest a clear path continues up to the final push to reach the top of Khorojos Tavi. There is also an alpine lake nearby, accessible along the trail going up.
Tusheti National Park
Tusheti National Park sits north of the Pankisi Valley, making the villages of Pankisi a great jumping-off or ending point for treks into the Tusheti area.
One route connects Jokolo to Omalo (another village named Omalo that’s located to the east of the Pankisi Valley in the Tusheti historic region along the Pshaveli-Abano-Omalo Road) via Sakorne Pass or Samkinvrostsveri Pass.
Chkhtana, Nakerela, and Beyond to Tusheti
Chkhtana is another Kist summer pasture that is accessible from either the trailhead to Khorojos or from a trailhead in Birkiani.
If coming from Khorojos, you’ll continue past the Khorojos pasture and on into the forest to eventually reach Chkhtana.
From Chkhtana it’s possible to continue to a lake up in Nakerela Pass and eventually over Samkinvrostsveri Pass to Omalo (the one over in Tusheti region not the Omalo village in Pankisi Valley).
Other Tips for Visiting the Pankisi Valley
- Bringing cash is advisable for paying for guesthouses and such, but there is an ATM in Duisi.
- Conservative dress (at least shoulders and knees covered) as this Pankisi is a predominantly Muslim area.
- Camping gear hire, if needed, is available from Nazy’s Guesthouse in Jokolo.
- Mobile internet is available in most villages of Pankisi but do expect slower speeds than in larger cities such as Tbilisi.
- Most guesthouses in Pankisi will provide free Wi-Fi.
Have any questions about visiting the Pankisi Valley?
Ask in the comments section below.