Another weekend passed and I was able to explore another region in this outrageously diverse country. This time, it was off to Svaneti (specifically the town of Mestia in Upper Svaneti), a mountainous region in the northwest which is described by Lonely Planet as, “impossibly beautiful, wild, and mysterious.” At first I thought that sounded a bit dramatic, but it ended up being quite accurate.
Svaneti is what you could call isolated. Isolated being defined here as a panic room that is built on top of Mount Everest after a nuclear winter. Perhaps that is a bit excessive, but let me at least explain the isolation. First, the Russian border lies on the other side of the imposing Caucasus mountains where some peaks rise over 5,000 meters. Nearby, the Roman’s declared it the end of the world.
As for the connection to southern Georgia, well an interesting tidbit is that the first car didn’t arrive to the region until 1935. Prior to that they were using dynamite to widen the cart path up to Mestia (A joke I read goes along the lines that the Svans would like to give Nobel a prize). Our group of 10 took this narrow & muddy road that often hugged a precipice you would rather not see directly below your window…simply, it is not a Sunday drive in the park. Our marshrutka driver emphasized this by pointing out the many, many, many points where people had gone off the cliffs to their demise. This, at the very least, contributed to the ten of us drinking on the minivan. Perhaps a reason why, once the snow comes, the road is often closed and the only way to get to Mestia is via helicopter (though an airport is being built).
The isolation is then a factor for several other interesting things regarding the Svans. First, they speak their own language which broke off from normal Georgian around the 19th century…BC. Second, an inaccurate judgment is that that Svans are sort of the West Virginians of Georgia-that is everyone’s neighbor is their cousin if you catch my drift. This has an influence on the rest of Georgian’s perceptions of Svans in general: a joke has it that a Svan goes to a doctor with a nail sticking out of his head and he asks how much to have it fixed. The doctor says it’ll be 10 lari (lari = dollar) to remove it. The Svan responds, “I’ve only got 5 lari so can you just push it back in?”
However, perhaps I just met the iconoclasts of Svaneti, or perhaps the amount of (generally Israeli) tourists which dominate the summer months have made an impact, but the Svans seem not only quite capable of fairly good English but also thoughtful conversations. In other words, the stereotype is bunk.
Third, because of its remoteness, as Georgians were attacked in the past they often took some of their most important treasures for safe keeping to Mestia and around Svaneti (the comparison to a panic room seems to be more and more accurate). Reinforcing this defensive identity are the 170 or so watchtowers which had previously served as a shelter when there were invaders. While I’ve heard a few descriptions of their use, I prefer the one that went, “basically they would run into the tower, close the door, and wait for the invaders to get cold and leave.”
So what did my group of 10 do in this remote area and small town of Mestia? Well again, it’s exceptionally beautiful with nature aplenty. While we were unable to hike to the nearby UNESCO town of Ushguli due to time, the first full day we took a relatively easy hike along a road to a glacier. Well, most of it was easy because we were able to catch a ride in the back of a dump truck-ahhh Georgia. The final few kilometers were not as easy as they included some sections that were very, surprise surprise, ROCKY (I’ve decided, if Georgia were ever to have a national cartoon it would be Rocky & Bullwinkle…rocks rocks rocks). However, as one can see in the photos, the Chalati Glacier is quite the sight and I was even able to touch it.
The next day was a bit more of a strenuous hike going up the large hill 900 m above Mestia. My brain is running short on synonyms so let me just say that the views from the top were very very nice. Perhaps most surprising however was that, a bit further up a hill from the Cross was a farm. During the 2-3 month summer, a family raises cattle on the pasture at a height of about 2300 m. Wisconsin cows don’t know how easy they have it.
Unfortunately, there was not much time for any more hiking, or the excellent museum in Mestia.
However, a final fun fact is that Mestia is along two rivers and one (the Enguri) is the same river which is directly connected to the legend of Jason & the Golden Fleece. Even today people use the method of putting sheep’s wool into the river to gather some gold, but people suggested you would need to do it for about one year without sleeping to gather anything substantial. However, based on the surrounding views, and the fact that you are more or less in a panic room, it seems like there could be worse things to do.
So, Svaneti was pretty sveet from my personal experience. I would recommend anyone to head there if able, and if you wish a more detailed personal account of my trip be sure to check out my excellent co-blogger Raughley‘s recollection. That’s all for now; kargad!