Tag Archives: Hiking

Another Day in Svaneti: Mostly Stories of Yore and Nature

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!

Hoopoe! One of two sighted in Svaneti, one of three sighted in Georgia

Morning Views from Road to Ushguli

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.

Tower of Love

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)

Church of St. Kvirike aka Lagurka

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.

Shaliani Icon in Lagurka/St. Kvirike

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…

Lamaria Church in Ushguli

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.

View towards glacier, Ushguli lies behind me

Incredible Mountain Flower (forgot the name..)

Kooky Yellow Flowers

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…..

Roadway madness.

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.

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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.

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