A Day in Svaneti

I apologize that I have dropped off the posting world.  Life in Georgia has been very blog-worthy (and more!), but constant travel and evenings spent with new friends has made its hard to sit down and actually record that whirl of impressions and escapades.  I recently traveled to Svaneti, and while there’s much more to say about my time there, here’s a little (ahem, still too lengthy) snippet of my time there….

Crucial Geographic Background; Russia and Georgia are separated by the natural barrier of the Caucasus Mountians, which stretch from the western coast of the Black Sea (near Sochi, Russia) to Azerbeijan’s coast on the Black Sea.  Home to the highest peaks in Europe (if you count this Europe), the range has acted as a political, cultural, and linguistic divide for as long as people have been trying to cross and conquer it.  On the Russian side of things is the so-called North Caucasus, home of the Russian republics of Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan, all locales fairly infamous for their shady internal politics (Moscow has poured money into Chechnya to curb the domestic terrorism from the separatist factions in the area, and the other mountain folks boast just as much—or little—similarity with and sympathy for “European” Russia as Chechnya).

On the more visitor-friendly side of things are the Southern Caucasus, generically the term for all of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbeijan, but more specifically just the stretch of mountains which lies primarily in Georgia. This mountainous border region within Georgia is called Svaneti and contains the entire area along the Russian border from the breakaway republic of Abhazia, to the breakaway republic of South Ossetia (mountain people combined with tsarist empirial colonialization, Soviet suppression and modern nation-state rhetoric makes for mayhem). While their neighbors might be discontent about who they legally do or don’t belong to (it’s still unclear!), the Svans are committedly Georgian.  Georgian, with a caveat.

The Svan (the people of Svaneti) are a curious folk.  They speak their own language, which is from the family of Caucasian languages (along with standard Georgian), but linguists estimate that Svan broke from Georgian some 4,000 years ago, so it’s quite, quite, quite distinct.  Because of their relatively remote location, the Svan have been existing socially and culturally quite separately from the rest of Georgia, although they’ve always been more closely aligned with Georgian powers than any of the numerous foreign invaders who have attempted colonize or absorb Georgia over the centuries. They converted to Orthodox Christianity sometime in the 5th-6th century, although pagan rituals are still enacted in parts of the Svaneti.  The most beloved of Georgian leaders, Queen Tamar, who ruled in the 12th-13th century during Georgia’s Golden Age, had strong ties to Svaneti.  I say this because even in the few days I spent in Svaneti, Tamar kept coming up, as a fascinating reminder that even modern day Svan identify with Georgia by way of connection to the most famous of all ancient Georgian leaders. In their long on-again, off-again relationship with the powers-that-be in lower Georgia, it seems like Tamar was one soverign the Svans are quite proud of serving.  Tamar apparently came to Svaneti at least yearly (a big deal when you get a sense of how hard it is to travel in this part of the world), had a residence in Upper Svaneti, and chose Svan men as her bodyguards since they were famed to be the most brave (and, I’ll wager, blood-thirsty) warriors in the land.

While I haven’t made it to the stone abode where they say Tamar stayed when visiting Svaneti, I did fly out there a week ago and got to see the famed early medieval towers, glorious vistas, and, it almost goes without saying, experience further acts of Georgian hospitality.

I flew into Mestia, the hub of sorts of Svaneti, on a propeller plane from Tbilisi.   I reminded myself that they wouldn’t fly if it wasn’t safe, but when, after a four hour delay, our flight finally boarded, seeing the pilots didn’t make me feel any less nervous.  They can’t be more than 25 years old and must moonlight as Mormons or Boyscouts.  Or, more worrisome, they moonlight as pilots. The flight was gorgeous though, and despite a jolty take off, it was smooth sailing for most of the hour long flight.

Tiny Plane and Bleach Blond Pilot-Boys

The clever bit of engineering that took us to the mountians

View from the Plane as we crossed into the Mountains

Although I had heard that Mestia was the “main city” of Svaneti, upon arrival it was quite clear that Mestia is more of a tiny town which simply functions as a outpost to the even more remote mountain towns.  There are a couple of guesthouses, a hotel, mini markets and a lot of construction aimed at turning Mestia into some sort of skiing-alpining tourism mecca.  And by a lot of construction, I mean, this sleepy mountain town is basically covered in a haze of construction dust, as men from all over the country come to labor on the dozens of renovations and new buildings.

Main Road in Mestia, beated up by construction trucks and busted pipes

Walking the whole ten minutes it takes to cross town, half a dozen huge Soviet work trucks barrel past, followed by another half a dozen a few minutes later.  The main street of the town has also been ripped up, and is slated for pavement in the near future, but locals seemed skeptical anything would happen on time.

Main Road in Mestia near Dusk, with Man and Pig

I have no idea how the reinvention of Mestia will play out, but it was a lovely place to stay for my Svaneti adventures, despite the roar of first world over-development.

Somewhat stupidly, I didn’t have any actual reservations for a guesthouse, thought I had called one place ahead of time and been assured that I would be found accommodation, if not in the guesthouse, then nearby.  Sure enough, the proprietess, a certain Nino Ratiani, had a full house, but put us up with her neighbors down the street.  It was an old traditional house, with big rooms and a semi functioning bathroom and everything was much more comfortable than it looked.

My Room in old Svaneti House

Of course, hiking for the better part of the day makes you pretty laid back about accommodations as long as there’s somewhere to pee and sleep (to put it bluntly).

Our first full day we decided to hike to the Koruldi Lakes, which are lie up into the northern ridge and past the iconic cross that is set on the mountain side overlooking Mestia.  I’m no outdoors women, in the least, but I thought that perhaps my hours of indoor training (a treadmill, I admit!) would somewhat prepare me for the 900+ meter ascent into the mountains….well, sort of.  The walk was very enjoyable and incredibly beautiful, but at least a third of it is a steep uphill incline which lingered on in my legs long since the hike itself.

Not surprisingly, before we even got to the trail, we got turned around, as we’d only been supplied with the most basic and vague of maps which had neither mile markers on it nor any indication of where the trailhead was.  Optimistically, we simply headed upwards from the main street, assuming we’d find the path, but got turned around and a bit confused upon hitting what looked like a dead end in the daunting combination of a crowded construction site and maybe someone’s yard.  As we backtracked to reorient ourselves, a local guy saw us and hollered over for us to join him in eating watermelon. Any attempts to decline we refused, so at 10:30 am, we found ourselves feasting on giant slabs of Kakhetian watermelon and talking with a trio of Georgian guys.  The conversation was a hodge podge of Georgian and Russian and when I asked if they knew where the path to the Cross began, I was greeted with incredulous replies.  “You want to WALK to the cross?”  For all of the natural beauty of Svaneti, there seems to be very little indigenous culture of hiking, as people are too busy living their already difficult mountain lives to go on leisure hikes in their time off.  It’s a bit strange to explain that you’re a pampered tourist who actually inflicts physical strain on yourself when given free time.

Although our watermelon hosts didn’t know where the trail began, they hollered to neighbors and we were directed quite quickly to the trailhead, which was actually the very way we’d come after all.  You just have to saunter through the construction and on to the gravel path that leads past the last few homes of Mestia and into the mountains.

Hike along the Cross-Koruldi Lake Path

View toward Mestia (invisible in valley below) from above the Cross

From the Cross, you can hike another two hours or so to the Koruldi Lakes, which are very very tiny lakes, glacial puddles of sorts, which sit in the shadow of the astounding Mt. Ushba. Alas, we only got fleeting glances of Ushba, as the clouds were hanging heavy, but we still had more than enough scenes of sheer mountainous glory to satiate all needs for pure, natural beauty.

Koruldi Lakes outside Mestia

And this overwhelming experience of sheer natural beauty was what made the experience so nourishing and relaxing, despite the knee-destroying declines and terrible sunburns (oh right, eight hours at nearly 3,000 meters means some serious sun exposure).  I think my city-slicker soul is also famished for landscapes that are untouched, or at least unperturbed, by human hands, and I’m counting on those few days hiking to sustain me until I can escape to somewhere terrifyingly beautiful again.

It ended up being a long eight hour hike, and later that evening when we descended back into town, we marveled that we hadn’t noticed how brutal the first hour of the hike was.  Its incredibly steep and a combination of dirt and gravel, so there’s a fair bit of scotching down the hill and hoping you don’t have to just descend entirely on your rear.  We kept marveling that we hadn’t realized how bad it was on the way up, but I chalk that up to a couple factors: going up is in a way much easier than going down, we also we naïve and had no idea how long the rough stretch would last for, and, lastly, we were coming off a fresh watermelon and hospitality high, so nothing is as challenging.

When we came back down, bedraggled, sweaty, and beat red (or past red, almost some horrifying purple), we were first greeted by a young local guy who was just sitting around with a  couple cowboys on the edge of town (horses are still a very common means of transport in Svaneti, we saw lots of men riding bareback in their graphic tees and converse, apparently taking care of business as usual).  This guy stood and waited for me to reach him when he greeted me in Georgia, “You tired?” “Oh yes.” “You speak Russian?” “Yes.” “You friend looks more tired than you.” “Yes, he is.” We chatted for another two minutes, then just stood there, looking at the Cross above us, at the fields alongside us.  “Well, congratulations, take care, all the best,” he said and we shook hands and went on our way. The Svan may be vicious when in battle, but their lovely when not.

A few moments later, I saw our friend with the watermelon, perked on the same pile of logs we’d seen him on that morning.  In a surge of triumph, I waved to him and shouted, “We made it!” in Russian.  He just stared, did a double take at my Crayola red self, and then ran to us, shaking our hands and congratulating us on our success.  One of his two friends from earlier materialized suddenly and said hello as well.  Honestly, it was almost just as nice to run into familiar faces as it was to hit almost level ground. Almost.



Filed under Sakartvelo! (aka Republic of Georgia)

4 responses to “A Day in Svaneti

  1. Oh, Mark and I did the same thing with the trailhead! It was our first fight, I think (who directed us wrong?). Getting to the cross & hiking around up there were sublime, but the so-called “lakes” were decidedly underwhelming.

    And boy, do I have a story about shady Svaneti politics when I see you.

    • Yeah, those “lakes”….A car of Georgians had broken down trying to drive to the lakes, and on our descent, as they were ascending, stopped to ask how much further they had to walk…I tried to be optimistic about only 20-30 minutes up up up hill, but still felt compelled to let them know they were very little lakes. As in, the view of glacier tipped peaks is worth it, but if I knew how to say “garden pond” in Georgian I would have….

  2. Emil

    Hey Britt, what an amazing adventure! Of course it’s great to read your description of the place, but, boy, do I wish I was actually there and hike with you guys and take in that pure air and devastatingly beautiful nature. I’m sure this experience will last you a life time!

  3. This really brought back memories for me. I am suprised to learn of the flights into Mestia now, and it will be interesting to see what they do with all the construction–there was certainly nothing of the kind going on there in 2006. I did not stay long in Mestia–just a stopover on the way to Ushguli (home of Tamar’s tower.) The town does have an excellent, if severe, museum which houses some incredible Svanetian manuscripts, tapestries and iconography. There are also several small but exquisite 12th-century churches tucked around in the town.

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