Georgia on my mind, Part II: Svaneti
The road from Mestia to Ushguli is in terrible condition, though parts of it are being re-made into what the
Georgians refer to as a ‘super-highway’, which is also the term applied to the tiny road leading from Zugdidi to Mestia. One day, the road will be paved and there will be even more visitors to Europe’s (or Asia’s) highest village. We had planned to take three days to walk to Ushguli, through the mountains, stopping in villages to sleep either in our tent or in ‘home stays’, business-saavy villagers who have turned their houses into guest houses. Since we’d been dropped off on the road and not near the hiking trail, we decided to hitch our way towards the next little village, Zarmushi. We found a ride with a construction worker within a few minutes and he let us out near Zarmushi. From there we found that the trail and its accompanying bridge had been destroyed to make way for the super-highway so we elected to continue
along dirt roads. At the next village, it was time for lunch. We sat down in a field across from the village church and cemetery (with really funny gravestones) and we had barely begun our picnic when a young man approached us and expressed in astoundingly good English how sorry he was that we were eating outside, how rude it was of him to not invite us in to eat with him and his family, but that his Grandmother was dying and so they couldn’t have guests. We were astonished at his feeling sorry for us when a member of his family was dying, and expressed our condolences and our delight at eating outside. He said it was really okay that she was dying, that she was very old and had lived a long life, and continued apologizing and gestured toward his family’s house, saying that if we needed anything to come over and ask.
We said thank you and continued our picnic. A few minutes later, two girls who didn’t look at all Georgian came out with some tea for us. It turned out they were English and Scottish, and one was the fiancé of the young man with the dying grandmother. We drank our tea and chatted with them, learning that the fiancé was there on a grant from Oxford University. She had met her future husband at an archaeological dig in Turkey; both were anthropology students. They had returned to his home to record Svaneti folktales in an attempt to preserve the culture and the language, a language which fewer and fewer people speak. This is a big deal because the language, which resembles Georgian of 500 years ago, is oral only and not written, so cannot be preserved outside of speech. The folktales and culture of the Svans is also rapidly disappearing because of Orthodox influences as well as globalization. The pair of girls and the young man were hiking around the mountains trying to get transcripts of Svan oral history before it’s all lost. Many traditions are being quelled, they explained, because Orthodox priests forbid them. Unique frescoes
and religious icons are being painted over or destroyed because they don’t conform to dictated Orthodox traditions. Many of the Svan traditions are regarded as heresy. Seriously, if people like these anthropology students don’t step in (and, hopefully, some international foundation with more money at their disposal), a whole bunch of incredible cultural knowledge will be lost. And a whole language. Here are some super awesome Svan facts that I learned while with Dmitri and his fiancé:
-The language is entirely oral, never written, never has been.
-The famous towers in Svaneti were used for defense as well as protection from avalanches.
-The Svans, traditionally, believe in giants and witches, and there are tons of magical creatures roaming the
mountains and forests. A lot of the folktales are used to explain family traditions or names, and often involve curses put upon certain families by giants or witches.
-The Svan society has always been very egalitarian. They are very proud that feudalism has never existed in their mountains, that even Stalin couldn’t subdue them. If a family acquired too much property and got uppity or tried to control their neighbors, they were very likely to be slaughtered.
-The Svans had rituals involving keeping the bones of the hunted animals in their towers.
-They had to be ‘clean’ to hunt, i.e. abstinent for a week, without recent deaths in their village, and with no family members menstruating.
-The Svans sort of incorporated Christianity into their pagan religion when they were introduced to it. They added Jesus to their pantheon. This led to the cool murals in their churches that Orthodox priests so disapprove of that even today they go around destroying them.
-Svans have the most awesome idea of heaven. It’s just a big feast with Jesus as the toastmaster (and we learned how important toasting is in Georgian culture with the help of Alex). The better you were during your life on Earth, the closer you get to sit to Jesus. If you were really bad, you’re just a server and you don’t even get to eat and are tortured by the smells of the delicious food. So it’s Heaven and Hell in the same place, it just depends on your position.
-The Svan life, until recently, was very Game-of-Thrones like. As in, dinner parties that turned into massacres,
kidnapping and killing of children to get rid of a family’s heir, magical creatures romping around the woods, etc. Dmitri told us one story that took place in the 19th century–rather recently–and ended with one family kidnapping the five-year-old son of another family for leverage. They ended up suspending him from their tower window and shooting him in front of his remaining family members (the others had already been killed). Feuds like this lasted centuries, often ending in the exile or murder of entire families.
Even though we couldn’t go in his house because of his Grandma’s sickness, Dmitri took us up into his family’s tower. The view was great but the history lesson was better. He showed us the stables, unaltered during 300 years. They functioned as shared sleeping/living spaces for both animals and humans (for warmth purposes) and were at the base of the tower. From there we climbed
up crumbling stone steps into the murder tower, pulling ourselves up through holes in the ceilings from story to story until we reached the top. Dmitri was angry because someone in his family, in an attempt to clean up, no doubt, had removed the sacred animal bones from the tower, bones that remained from a hunt centuries ago and were placed there for ritual purposes. Some of the levels of the tower were forbidden to women, but Dmitri let me see them anyway. Each floor was rather small, a kind of cubicle space in which people would huddle, I imagine, during raids or avalanches.
We left Dmitri and his fiancé around 2:30 and continued on down the road. Dmitri gave us his phone number in case we had problems and warned us about bandits in the mountains. This scared me, but our guidebook had assured us that the problem of tourists getting robbed in Svaneti had abated years ago.
We didn’t make it far before we were literally dragged by another Svan family, this time all women, into their humble home to be served coffee and fed candies. Three generations of women, one who was from a neighboring village but had been transplanted, as is the custom, when she married, sat before us, gesticulating and speaking excitedly in Georgian. We were able to express where we were from, that we loved the country, the people, and the landscape, that we were sleeping in a tent and hiking to Ushguli. They seemed a little baffled about why anyone would choose to do such a thing, but were eager to shower us with gifts of chocolate candies when we left. We were lucky, really, that we had taken the road and not the hiking trail, because with this many delays we never would have arrived at our goal for the evening, Zhabeshi.
In Zhabeshi, we tried to visit a church we’d been told about, but the men working outside (building something for the church, or fixing it up or something) were very reluctant to let us even after interrogating us, as best they could, about our religion, which we assured them was Christian. As we were leaving, we saw a man walking down a path towards us and he yelled out ‘Israeli? Israeli?’ which I found pretty funny
because it’s not as if we go around yelling at random people ‘American? American?’. And that’s when we discovered that Svaneti, and Georgia in general, is a very popular destination for Israelis. They’d hinted at this at the tourist information office in Mestia, but I hadn’t realized to what extent Georgia was frequented by Israeli tourists. We never met another nationality on the trails in Mestia. Now I think this is why they didn’t want to let us into the Church, they were pretty sure we were Jewish. We helped the lost Israeli man find a guest house for the night and then continued on to try to find a nice place to camp, which we did, at the base of the pass we would cross the next day, next to a little village cemetery. I did
some walking around the village while Austin read, and as it got dark we set up the tent. Our campsite attracted all the village kids and we made friends with them and talked (in English, which they weren’t very good at, but better than all the older people!) about video games and food. Eventually one of them ran home and returned with some bread and cheese for us. I think people assumed we were really poor because we weren’t, like all the other tourists, staying in guesthouses. I gave the kids some Pacman stickers and eventually night fell and they went to bed.
The field where we were sleeping was populated by chickens, pigs, sheep, cows, and dogs, and they rustled around outside in the morning, waking me up very early. I
tried to get back to sleep but eventually opened the tent flap when I heard a very human-seeming yell just outside. It was a toothless and grinning old woman holding a tray of boiled potatoes, cheese, and a pitcher of fresh yogurt from her cow–breakfast! She came back with spring water in a jar, and gestured that we should re-fill it with the yogurt when we finished. As we were eating a shepherd walked by with his dog, Ooba, who we’d met the night before and indicated where to return our dishes to the old woman. We did so, and then of course had to stay for coffee and a chat/charades. Her eldest great-granddaughter, a teenager who we’d also met the previous night, was wearing a t-shirt that said “one more wild night”, which is irrelevant, but Georgians did have some of the funniest English t-shirts. Once the coffee pot was empty and we’d discussed all of the great-granddaughters (the bigger the family, the prouder the babushka, generally speaking), we expressed our desire to get on the road, telling her that we were headed to Adishi. It turns out that was where she was from, and she was very excited to explain that to us (in gestures). Our hands full of candy, we left, saying ‘thank you’ a million times
in Georgian, and we were on our way.
Not far into the ascent, I remembered Dmitri’s warning about robberies and wavered in our decision to cross the pass by the hiking trail instead of following the road. We had misgivings about crossing the pass, yes, but 100% of our experiences with Georgians had been positive. These people had very little material goods, in comparison with the average American, but they wanted to share everything with us. When I thought about the smiling face of the babushka proudly sharing her breakfast with us I couldn’t imagine being robbed by anyone of her region. Even her insolent teenage great-granddaughter had shown goodwill, although not the enthusiasm of her great-grandmother. Plus, all the other tourists were Israeli. You have to be out of your mind to try to rob an Israeli. They are the toughest people in the world. But Dmitri was Georgian, wouldn’t he know his culture better than we did? After much debate, we decided to continue cautiously up the pass on the footpath.
When we did encounter people, they turned out to be another group of tourists; Israelis, of course, which assuaged my fears. The summit was gorgeous, with views of glaciers galore, wildflowers, and rolling fields below. We traversed the crest until we found a sign that said “Adishi” and pointed downhill. We ran into a couple of girls who told us that they weren’t sure about descending that way but we decided to trust the sign, the only one we’d seen that day. Big mistake. The descent took about three hours longer than projected, and we were bushwhacking the whole way. There were discernible traces of people, other lost hikers I guess, but no path. We followed faint signs of human activity, keeping in mind that our next destination was in the river valley below and that as long as we
descended we couldn’t really miss it, and finally poured out into a field adjacent to an old gravel road. We concluded, from our maps, that we were about 250 meters below our destination and that we’d have to go upriver to find it. Let me just say something about Georgian maps here. There is one store, Geoland, in Tbilisi, that reputedly has good maps. The maps in Geoland are topographically correct. Someone told us that they were based on the old Soviet maps, which are purposely skewed so as to confuse enemies, but they’re not. They are quite good, topographically speaking. What they are not good at is showing trails. There are two different markings for jeep road and pedestrian trail on the maps, but neither corresponds to what actually exists in reality. Some of the jeep roads on the maps have never existed, and some of the pedestrian trails appear to have always been jeep roads. And some of the trails and roads that appear on the maps don’t exist, while the existing trails and roads often don’t appear on the maps at all. Used in conjunction with the maps from the tourism office, a compass, and some common sense, the Geoland maps are useful; or if you are an expert wilderness navigator who has no use for trails, they will do quite nicely. I am no such thing, and because of my rather poor triangulation skills, we often weren’t quite sure where we were because I would triangulate our position while we were standing on a jeep road which didn’t appear on the map and would conclude that I must be wrong. Whatever, we still made it.
When we finally arrived in Adishi after a day that extended about three hours past our projected arrival time, we ran into an Israeli family we’d passed before. They were surprised we’d followed the indications for Adishi that appeared on the top of the pass because written below the word ‘Adishi’ on the sign was a message in Hebrew “Don’t follow this trail! It’s not the right way!”. We of course don’t read Hebrew, unlike 99.99% of Svaneti’s visitors, and so followed a much different path than the rest of the hikers. “Don’t worry,” said another group of Israelis. “You didn’t miss much, the most beautiful day is ahead of you.” This group was hiking the trail backwards, from Ushguli to Mestia, specifically to avoid the trap we’d fallen into, infamous among Israeli backpackers.
We arrived so late into Adishi that night that we decided to take advantage of our allotted budget for home stays and checked into the first we found. We were the only ones staying there; the 22 million Israelis were all staying together at another one. We slept in a huge, beautiful blue house, once a functioning family farm, now run by a young woman who was a teacher during the school year and managed the house (along with her brothers, who mostly seemed to ride around on horses) during the summer. We agreed on a price, about 18 euros per person for dinner, morning coffee, a bed, and hot showers. We showered (such hot water–which was a surprise–and good water pressure…probably the best shower of my life) and went for a walk around the idyllic, mostly abandoned village. Adishi is very remote, there are no roads that access it except for an unmaintained jeep road. We didn’t see a single vehicle while we were there. What we did see were hundreds of adorable piglets, chickens, and cows running every which way all over the place. The streets of the village are more like muddy cowshit paths. Our host told us that a few old people stay there all year round, but that everyone else leaves. The villages of Svaneti are inaccessible during winter, and the people who stay tend to be those who’ve never done any differently, who know how to preserve enough food to survive the long, harsh winter. So old people. One day, I imagine, they will be totally abandoned, with summer residents returning each year to rent rooms to Israelis (and the occasional American, apparently). Our host had even learned a few words of Hebrew. We thought it would be hilarious if Georgia, the most Christian nation ever, adopted Hebrew as a second (or third) language.
Our host served us dinner, well-seasoned potatoes, meat stew, matsoni, the ubiquitous tomato-cucumber salad, salty cheese, home-made bread, sour cherry preserves and vodka. She and her brothers sat on the couch behind us while we ate with the TV on (they had satellite!), switching between hilariously cheesy dance music videos and classic Russian cinema. We gorged ourselves, had only one shot as we were still reeling from our last vodka experience, and went to bed. We were up early the next morning and on our way. We were warned that our route included a dangerous river crossing and that we’d probably have to hire horses to do it. We assumed that we’d encounter horses along the way and our host told us that her brother would ride down later that day to make sure we’d crossed, so if we
hadn’t by then, we could cross with him. We ended up running into a father-son horse-riding team along the way and had to pay about 8 euros each to cross the river (after some fierce bargaining), which we were willing to do since we were carrying my camera, an iPad, and our cellphones. Wilderness backpacking while vacationing can be such a bummer; you have to carry EVERYTHING you
have with you, chargers and all. Our bags were unreasonably heavy, but I think we could have made it across had we not had the electronics. The day’s journey into the adjacent river valley turned out to be as amazing as we’d been expecting. The most beautiful mountain pass I’ve ever seen outside of the Canadian rockies. It can’t compare really, since you’re passing from one rustic village to another. We ate lunch at the highest point and then when we were about a kilometer (we thought) from the next village, we found a nice camping spot and settled in early, building a nice campfire. I saw the most amazing stars that night and wrote in my journal “I am finally enjoying this country. I am not so
anxious to leave. The highest mountains I’ve ever seen”.
The next morning we took our time since we assumed we were so close to the next village, Iprari. But again, we felt misled by the maps, and our hike was much longer than anticipated. After the village of Iprari, the hiking trail joins up again with the main road from Mestia to Ushgul, the future superhighway. Walking along this road is like a death march (okay, it could be worse). You’re down in a river valley, among the trees, and you have no views and are moving very slowly in an unchanging landscape. We stuck out our thumbs for hours but had no luck. The vast majority of the traffic is tourist jeeps, packed to the brim. Finally,
halfway through the five hour slog from Iprali to Ushguli, someone pulled over. It turned out to be a lovely Slovenian family who were thrilled and baffled by our love for their country (as most Slovenians are). We made fast friends and chatted amiably all the way to Ushguli. The family consisted of one hip teenager, Kaia, and her maybe-even-hipper parents, Vlad and Moitsa. They’d been around the world together, to the USA, Turkey, Spain, Nepal…They’d travelled to India as a family like ten times, that’s how cool
they were. We were thrilled to encounter someone who shared our culture; because, really, when you travel in places like Georgia, you come to appreciate the refined culture of people from European countries. You can talk about music, literature, and political events without feeling like you have to censor or over-explain yourself. I’m not saying we share the exact same culture, it’s just like when you encounter Westerners in a non-western country you have a mutual assumed understanding. The Slovenian family always stayed in home stays, so they parked at one, reserved their beds, and we went out to have some beers together. We decided to meet the next day to travel all the way back to Zugdidi together (couldn’t have worked out better for us!), and they’d stay in their home stay while we went up towards the mountains to find a camping spot. We
followed a trail/jeep road (possibly represented as neither on the Geoland map) to a gorgeous field alongside the river where we set up camp. Almost immediately we were approached by some young Georgian men on horseback who introduced themselves, hung out for awhile smoking cigarettes, and then rode off. Austin went off to gather wood for a fire and the boys came back around, showing off their horse tricks for me
(flattering and actually very impressive). They were all riding bareback, as most Georgians do, and could stand up on top of the horses’ backs. They took pictures of one another with their cellphones, and finally, after much pressuring, convinced me to go for a ride. By this time Austin had returned. I made sure they weren’t expecting me to pay, and then I got on behind a boy named Lashka. We rode around for about fifteen minutes, up over the crest of a hill, and then he wanted to sit down to rest. His English was
incomprehensible; he knew how to say ‘hello’, that he was a university student, and that he was 21 years old. I told him Austin was my husband, of course. While we were sitting in the field and resting, just out of sight of the other boys and Austin, he started saying some funny things that I was very slow to catch on to, like ‘you me sex love,’ and ‘one minute, just one
minute!’. I was confused, then pretended that I was more confused than I actually was, and then finally laughed at him and told him, very firmly, ‘no’, and ‘let’s go!’, which he understood and took quite well. We were riding back at full gallop and I was thinking, ‘well, at least he asked’, when he said “Allana? I sorry! I sorry!”, and I laughed and told him it was okay. I never once felt at all threatened by him. I just think the standards there are very different, and he’s probably never had sex because he lives in a very conservative Christian society. He’s also probably seen American movies and has a vague–and confused–idea of what goes on between young American heterosexuals and thought that all he had to do was ask. I hope he gets laid ASAP, poor guy. It would be awesome if some tourist were seduced by his riding skills and the fact that his family has the perfect vacation home in a remote mountain region; I just wasn’t the right one.
Austin was worried when we returned, not because he had any bad feelings about Lashka but because he knew I wouldn’t want to be out with a stranger for as long as I had been. One of Lashka’s friends (a married man, which I think really affected his attitude about women and what Lashka was up to, etc) offered to go try to find us and he did, but not until we were already on our way back. All the boys wanted our Facebook information, so we exchanged that and then said goodnight. They rode off and we went off to collect wood and gather water, returning to find a sheepdog feasting on our food. We chased him off with yells and stone-throwing. He ate our breakfast and lunch but luckily left us our dinner. We started our fire and drank some more beer (which we’d been cooling in a nearby spring) and ate what the sheepdog had left us When it got dark, our campfire started to attract more locals. The first to show up peeled out in his jeep and staggered out, blind drunk, to our fire with his bottle of cha cha. He left his car running, indicating it several times during our conversation, gesticulating proudly and exclaiming ‘My jeep! My jeep!’. He insistently fed us shot after shot, and I couldn’t get away with drinking only half because he’d given us clear plastic glasses. He was absolutely relentless in his insistence that we come to his house, that we couldn’t possibly sleep in our tent, that it wasn’t a home. We’d learned the Russian words for ‘tent’ and ‘house’ and explained that our tent was indeed our house, but he was very persistent and said he was going to drive back to the village, drop off his friends, and then come back for us. He stumbled back to his jeep, leaving us with the cha cha and fortunately never returned. Our next visitor showed up on horseback, the glowing eye shine of his horse startling us as we sat next to our fire. He helped us finish the cha cha and then went politely on his way.
We woke up in the morning face to face with cows, as usual. I bravely fought them off–they were very curious–while we made tea and packed up our stuff.
We went back down into Ushguli for breakfast, eating with the Slovenian family in their hostel. Lashka and his horse-riding friends were there, and they were all pitifully hungover. It turns out he propositioned Kaia, the Slovenian girl, as well! All the boys were very interested in Austin’s rolling tobacco (they were also constantly asking us for pot, as if Americans were expected to travel with it) so we showed them how to roll their own cigarettes and left them with some tobacco, papers, and filters. We walked around Ushguli a bit, observing that we’d come at exactly the right time. That place is going to turn into a disaster. There are already a lot of tourists and no way to take care of all the garbage they generate; the river bends are piled high with plastic bottles. We were able to camp out in a field, under towering peaks, and have a fire. If a place like Ushguli existed in Europe, such activities would be illegal, as, when you have high tourist traffic, they should be. So while I enjoyed Georgia’s lawlessness, I realized that the same lawlessness that lets us and other responsible campers sleep in the field also permits others to come and throw trash, do donuts in their jeeps, etc. I’m really glad that dirt bikes haven’t quite made it to Georgia. They will within the next few years, and soon the precious spaces we felt so priveleged to visit will be flooded with more tourists and their
accompanying garbage and off-road vehicles.
We piled into the family’s rented 4×4 just as the clouds rolled in and began the long drive back through Mestia to Zugdidi. We stopped at two ethnological museums, one in Ushguli which was a total joke and quite expensive for Georgia, and another in Mestia which was really well done, really informative, very cheap, and not too big so as to be overwhelming. The unpaved road to Mestia began flooding with the torrential rains, parts of it were nearly washed
away. It was like rivers were flowing across the road. At one point all the passengers got out to make the vehicle lighter so we could cross a flooded section, watching the road being carried away by the fast-moving water. We were lucky to make it back to Mestia, where pavement began. We bought some bread for a quick lunch and descended the treacherous highway to Zugdidi, where we said good-bye to our new friends. As we were doing so, we of course attracted the attention of a few drunks and the police, all of whom were very eager to help us. The police chased off the drunks, and Kaia was able to tell the police in Russian that we didn’t need a ride anywhere this time; that we were going to stay with some friends, but thank you very much for their help and that Georgian police were very good, yes, very good, and no corruption, not like Russia. We went back to the Polish kids’ house and had another fun night of drinking and story-sharing before we left the next day.