Evenings in Svaneti are lovely, because unlike in Tbilisi, there is no siren call of the internet to distract you from life (or anything else for that matter), so we just ate and then drank with the other travelers staying at our guesthouse. Most of the crowd was intense Israelis who came straight to Svaneti for hiking but there were a couple chill Euros who were around and up to hang out and share tales of traveling in Georgia.
Our second night we were seated at dinner with a pair of travelers who were looking to go to Ushguli the next day, and as we couldn’t afford to rent a car to there on our own, we teamed up with them for a one day excursion to the highest populated place in all of Europe (of course, that’s only if you consider Georgia to be in Europe). They were fantastic travel companions, not just in that they were smart and delightful, but they were also some kind of nature specialists by trade and wildly knowlegable about all things flora and fauna. So not only did we get to save money on our ride, but we got free guides to rare lichens, mountain orchins, and a variety of phenomonena that I would never have noticed or appreciated if my city slicker self had been left to my own devices!
The roads to Ushguli from Mestia are pretty rough, so although its not much more than 40 km it’s a good 3 hour drive along a path that only a four wheel drive and capable driver should attempt. We set off around 8am, so we saw early sunlight slowly cover the valley as we traveled, occasionally stopping for a picture. Especially in the event of rare bird sightings, which happened a few times as well!
Our driver was a man named Paata, with whom I first tried to practice my Georgian on, but he quickly asked me if I knew Russian, and we then spent the rest of the day in Russian. In general in Svaneti, I was surprised at how many people spoke Russian, and spoke it quite well. They were educated somewhere in Russia during the Soviet times, or had professional or personal ties to the Russophone world in a way that almost seemed stronger than in Tbilisi. Paata’s Russian was gorgeous, much better than mine, but even more interesting, he’s from Sukhumi and left because of the war. Sukhumi, the largest city in the breakaway republic of Abhazia, used to be home to thousands of Georgians who left en masse after the conflicts of the 90’s and moved into Displaced Person Camps throughout the country. A quarter of million people lived in makeshift camp, civic buildings, or, famously, were actually put up in Tbilisi’s downtown hotel Iveria (now the Radisson) and lived there for years until being relocated.
Anyway, Paata briefly lived in Tbilisi with the other IDPs (Internally Displaced Person), but decided that it was “better to live in a dacha than a hotel” (a dacha being a summer cabin) and moved to his dacha in Svaneti. That was seventeen years ago. His sister ended up making it to NYC on a US visa or greencard (or refugee status?) and he seemed to momentarily question his decision to move to Svaneti rather than hold out for a golden ticket. Only a for a second though. Although he himself isn’t Svan (and doesn’t speak it), it was very clear from our conversations along the drive that he has quite a respect for the Svan and a deep, deep admiration for their reputedly brave, wild and gracious character (sounds like a strange mix, but it works). He told us how centuries ago the Svans had heard that a prince from Lower Svaneti was coming to their village to try to subjugate them, so the Svans got together to hatch a plan. They laid out a table for a feast near one of their towers, and constructed a false wall behind it. There was a small hole in the wall fitted to let an arrow through. When the prince came, they invited him to sit and dine and feigned innocence. You can see where this going, but its better that you think. The code word was that when the prince was offered red wine, the trigger would be pulled. But all of the Svans wanted to protect their freedom together, so they all tied a piece of string to the trigger, so that they could collectively kill him. Sure enough, red wine was brought forth, the words uttered, and the whole village killed their would-be lord. And then, of course, killed all but one of his entourage as well. Since then, Paata said, they make sure you know that an Upper Svan is a free man, and I even saw gravestones later that day in Ushguli that bore the epithet above the name of the deceased “Free Svan.”
Paata made sure we stopped at the “Tower of Love,” which bears the iconic structure of most Svan towers and is located right along the river. “Tower of Love” may conjure up a vision of amorous rendezvous in a medieval fortification, but there was less necking and more longing in this tower.
Long long ago, during the festival of Kvirikoba, a young man and young lady fell in love. The festival of Kvirikoba takes place on the 28th of July every year, and is celebrated at the twelfth century church of St. Kvirike, which lies on the mountaintop above the tiny town of K’ala. (Peep last years celebrations here)
On Kvirikoba, which commemorates the martyrdom of two early Svan Christians (while maintaining quite the pre-Christian rituals as well!), there is a long Divine Liturgy at night, and then feasting afterwards until the early morning. Well, it was at this feasting that the young lovers met and fell in love. The magical festivities of Kvirikoba had distracted our young man from one important thing though. He was already married.
His wife gets wind of this and is obviously not happy (Paata told this whole story in such a matter of fact way that I’m having a hard type recrafting it into a good legend narrative flow). The man doesn’t know what to do, he is married, yet he loves another. The young women from Kvirikoba also remains steadfast in her love for him. In the midst of all of this, the young man decides to go out hunting, and sees a stag. He shoots at it, but misses, he is too far away. As he walks closer, the ground beneath him gives way and he falls through the snow and into the river. When his love finds out of his death, she goes into mourning, wearing black, staying in her room weeping constantly. Months pass and she still won’t take off her mourning clothes, or even really stop crying. She barely eats, won’t talk to anyone. Her father and brother implore as to what that can do to alleviate her pain. She answers that the soul of her lover is in the river, and that she must live on the river, so that her tears can flow into his soul. They build her the tower and she remains there till her dying breath, weeping for her lost love.
On slightly related note, this church, St. Kvirike, is home to a very famous icon as well, that is thought to be from the 5th or 6th century. Paata told us that the icon was given to a strong Svan, Shaliani, by an Imereti king (Imereti is another region in lower Georgia) and brought back to Svaneti with him. Why did the Imeretian King want to give the strapping Shaliani the icon? Well, the king of Imereti called on the Svans to supply him with one hundred men to scythe the fields of Geguti. So imagine the King’s shock when he saw that just one man, Shaliani, had shown up and alone did the job of one hundred men in the same time it would have taken them. The king was so astounded that he told Shaliani to name his price, for what was such labor worth? Shaliani named the icon of Christ as his price, and received it as the wages of his labor.
Shaliani wrapped the icon in the sheep’s skin and set off to return to Svaneti. However, while traveling through the area of Kala (where the church now is), some locals heard that Shaliani was passing through with a treasure and decided to rob him. They attacked and killed him and then rifled through his bags and found the icon. They tried to make off with it, but as soon as they had taken the icon, the sky turned black and it began to snow heavily. They walked in circles and circles but couldn’t make any progress. After an entire night of this, they ended up back at the place where they had begun. At this point, there are varying accounts of what happened. Either the thieves died of exposure and the icon was found by villagers, or the villagers killed the thieves, or the thieves themselves gave up on trying to make off with the icon. However it was, ultimately no one in this steep valley of the mountains knew what to do with so great an icon. So they (either the thieves or the villagers) made a cross out of logs, affixed that to the yoke of two bulls, and fastened the icon to the cross. They decided to let the bulls go wherever they wanted, led by the presence of the icon, and wherever they rested they would build a church. The bulls cross the river, ascended the climb and stopped at the peak where the church still stands to this day.
After relating this, Paata averted his eyes from the road to look at me quite seriously. “The ‘Tower of Love’ is a legend, right, just a legend. But this is a fact. It’s history.”
The icon, which is of Christ, is often called by the name of it’s slain owner, Shaliani. Alas, we couldn’t go up into the church (its only open once a month, when there is Liturgy celebrated by the collective priest of a few neighboring towns or for its annual feast) but I hope I can see it sometime, maybe even if I return for their July 28 festivities (which apparently includes a lot of animal sacrifice and stone throwing!). In the meantime, I’ve lifted an image of it from the internet for our edification.
After lovers drowned and heroes slain, the rest of my time in Ushguli was pretty quiet. We arrived in Ushguli proper in late morning, feasted on Svan food (the cheese was incredible, and came fried in giant disks of glory), and then set off to hike to a glacier that was a pretty flat walk from Ushguli (yes!).
On the way out of town, we stopped in the church of Lamaria (which means Mary in Svan) and saw frescos from the 10th and 11th centuries. Svaneti is full of incredible icon frescoes, some done by the famous 11th century Teodore (who lived under David the Builder), but many are in terrible states of disrepair, and are also in churchs that are still functioning as churches, so I have no interior pictures to offer you…
The walk to the glacier and back is about 6-7 hours, and we only really had 4 if we wanted to make it back on the road to Mestia while it was still light (and, more importantly, in time for dinner!). So we walked for about two long hours towards the glacier, stopping to investigate Caucasian mountain plateau wildlife, and then did a brisk short two hours back.
Sure enough, we were in Mestia around sevenish, feasted on the exact same food served at each other meal (good, but not remarkable), then retreated to a covered lean-to like space in the backyard where we drank wine and kicked it with other travelers. Definitely the most hostel-like experience I’d had in a couple years. Two other guests were Romanians driving back to Tbilisi the next day, so we arranged to catch a ride with them and take in the scenic route.
While the route was scenic, it was COMPLETELY under construction, and there were no people strategically stationed to tell you when there was an obstacle or one way traffic or something, so you would drive along this rocky road hugging the side of the mountain, only to hit a bulldozer wedged into the road, and then oncoming traffic inching around it. Which means someone has to go in reverse back the way they came until there is space to pass. A little nerve wrecking…..
But all in all, after many many hours of driving, seeing much of Svaneti, the weird semi-tropical city of Zugdidi, Kutaisi from the window, and then the rolling valley of Kartli, we were home sweet home in Tbilisi, ready to drink wine on our own balcony and savor some loooong hot showers.