I crossed the Abhazia/Georgia border by foot. I had anticipated problems in reentering Georgia, as I’d stayed longer than I had thought in Abkhazia (30 days rather than 10). But all went well and I ended up taking a taxi to Mestia, the main town in Svaneti. I had been told that I needed to go there and was afraid of marshutkas at this point, so decided to splurge and spend 100 GEL (44 USD or so) on a taxi. The driver was very kind, and I shared my gum, bread, and sweets with him. It was an old car and I wondered whether we’d get there or end up pushing it up the hill, but 3.5 hours later we finally arrived. I had no idea where to stay, and wandered down the main street and behind the square to find lodging. I saw a lovely place and searched for the owner. A kind woman and her daughter were in the main house and said I could stay in a beautiful room upstairs with a view of the rushing river and the mountains.
My time in Mestia and Ushguli (both in Svaneti) was glorious. Exhausted from the heat and stress of previous travels, I welcomed the cool air and snow-covered mountains like a cold drink on a hot day. My new landlord made her own cheese, yogurt, and bread (poori), as well as picked fruit, herbs, and veggies from her garden. She has a cow in the yard and makes her own yogurt (as well as poori, for which she uses a woodburning stove). She gave me fresh picked mint tea for my headache, and fresh yogurt and cheese. Her sister came to visit from Tblisi and brought watermelon from the Kakheti region of Georgia. What a lovely taste! The giant melons looked otherworldly floating in the outdoor bath tub constantly filled with fresh spring water. Everyone had a spring in their yard, and the water was the sweetest I’d had since backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. Russian is the lingua franca in Abkhazia and Georgia, so I did my best to as she didn’t speak English nor I Georgian. Apprently the Georgian spoke in Svaneti (Svan) is almost incomprehensible to Georgians – I think it sounded a bit like Abkhazian (their neighbors are less than 20 km away). I went to the museum of ethnography in Mestia (it turns out they gathered traditional household items from all the villages in Svaneti and housed them there). They also have many of the church collections in the region (people often gave “casual finds” or archaeological items to their local parish, as well as jewelry and items from precious metals like drinking vessels).
I don’t remember my daily itinerary (it’s been more than 2 months since I was there), so I’ll just mention the highlights. I found a lovely meadow in the pine trees about 5 minutes from where I was staying. It became my ritual to go there at night (I unexpectedly saw the beautiful glowing lights of fireflies my first night there). Sady, I stood transfixed watching one pale light go out completely. I associate fireflies with the movie Pan’s Labrynth, and with a trip to Italy where I discovered fireflies quite by accident one night in the vineyard at the villa my step dad had rented. I also meditated about my friend Phil, who I lost a few months after a car accident where he drove into a tree (and I smashed my ankle and broke my tibia and fibula in several places). I said hi to him in the moonlight under the pine trees and asked his spirit to stay close to me.
One day I took a walk past the Mestia airport toward the receding glacier a few miles from town, Yes, airport! I booked a flight back to Tblisi and was so excited to pay only 30 Lari (about 12 USD) for a 45 minute flight rather than 40 Lari for a 10 hour marshutka ride). Sadly, the plane only flies in perfect weather, and the morning of my flight was cloudy. I was incredulous that a plane couldn’t fly if there were clouds, but so be it. The weather gods were not in my favor that day, and I ended up making a very quick (3 minute) decision at 11:50am to jump on the marshutka leaving for Zugdidi.
As they say, curiosity kills the cat. My insatiable curiosity led me to up a steep mountain road toward an abandoned stately home. As I climbed, I heard the persistent honking of a dune buggy. The owner, a gregarious Georgian, suggested that I turn around and head in the opposite direction. Apparently I had been heading toward the unmarked Abkhazian border, and he was an off duty border patrol guard. He offered me a bumpy ride in his dune buggy, as he was going to pick up his son and 5 friends who’d hiked up the glacier that morning. I found myself really enjoying the river as we drove past. Lots of big rocks and glacial till in the river, and a view of the mountain at the end. The 6 kids miraculously folded themselves into the back seat. I offered them my seat, but he said simply, they are Svaneti boys Given the history of these people, how fiercely they have fought for their independence (some say they were never conquered by any enemies), that statement means a lot.
On the way back, the car’s engine siezed up. The driver, nonplussed, used the vehicle’s momentum to coast. All 6 of us got out and pushed the reluctant buggy over boulders and rivers. Finally, the engine decided to start again, and we were off. He invited me to his house for food and we picked up his wife and her sister on the way home. They proceeded to make a traditional feast of poori, khachapoor (poori with local cheese melted inside – Georgian pizza), a salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, and freshly-made yogurt. I asked to pay for the meal, and they said to give what I wanted. I felt awkward as I didn’t want to underpay, and offered 10 Lari, the equivalent of about 4USD. Just to give you perspective, a room for the night is 20 Lari (I had a view overlooking the river and my own room). Not so later in my travels, of course. In Estonia, I was lucky to find a place for 70 Euro (77 USD) per night. Big difference.
He wanted me to rent a room from them, but I had just found a really nice hotel overlooking the river and didn’t want to move into a place without a window (fresh air is a must for me). As part of his strategy to lure me in, he suggested that I climb a large flat rock near the river and suggested that I kick my shoes off and have a snooze. He also offered me a hammock slung between 2 apple trees. His yard abutted the powerful river that flows through Svaneti, a village of 50 people that swells to several hundred during summer season.
The next day I headed up the almost vertical hill toward the 10 or so towers that dominate the mountain overlooking Mestia. All the towns in Svaneti have multiple towers. Originally, every family had a tower. The height (number of floors) of a tower was a status symbol and reflected the family’s prestige and wealth. I had thought the towers were used mostly for defense against invaders. It turns out they were mostly used to avoid the violence inspired by vendettas. If a family member killed someone in another family, there would be a vendetta to kill a family member in their stead. This was such a serious occurence in Svaneti that they had a special man in each village whose job was to mediate cases of revenge, as well as other disputes of property, farming, etc that might arise. In ancient times, they would scratch their decisions onto animal bones and keep these as a record of the judgement. Some of these bones, found by archaeologists, are displayed in the Svaneti ethnographic museum.
I stopped in at an inn on the way up to the cross on the moutain top (yes, that’s where I was headed) and met a nice young Georgian who was curious about my visit to Abkhazia. I told her about it and suggested that she go. She thought it was verbotten and hadn’t pursued it. I don’t know whether the Georgian government has forbade its citizens to visit, but I know that Abkhazia welcomes Georgians (many live and work in Abkhazia, particularly in the border towns). I had a pee and a drink of water, and continued the grueling climb. At the top of the cobblestone road, a few workers sat and bemusedly watched as I sweated my way up the hill. I actually turned back that day because of the heat and commenced with the walk the next day, when it was much cooler.
The next day, the climb was easy and I continued up the forest path to a large dirt road. On my way up to the top of the mountain I saw a multi-colored retinue of wild flowers, and was happy to finally get to top 1 .5 hours later. I met a nice couple from Spain who were continuing on to a lake some 7 km in the distance. I decided to accompany them for a time and walked for another 45 minutes or so, finally deciding to turn around. The top of the mountain was overgrazed and quite ugly compared to the walk up through the forest. It was just a big boggy pasture for over zealous cows that were less than environmentally responsible ;> On my way back, I searched for the forest path but couldn’t find it. I followed several that went off into the woods and then ended at a cliff. So I ended up walking about an hour out of the way, and was very weary upon returning to my hotel.
I was so hungry that I snagged some bread and fish that hadn’t been eaten by the guests (I hadn’t ordered dinner and it was too late to do so). I felt like a medieval peasant working in a nobleman’s castle who was stealing a piece of mutton. Later that evening, sitting on the terrace overlooking the river, I had a very interesting and edifying conversation with a Georgian mountain guide from South Ossetia. I told him about my trip to Abkhazia and he told me how Russia provoked Georgia and Ablkhazia to go to war in 1992, and how they later lied about invading South Ossetia in 2008. He sent me several articles showing Russian TV fabricating war footage and implying that the occupying soldiers and bombers were Georgian, not Russian. In addition, he showed me satellite photos of his village which showed what occupying Russian did when villagers fleed: they demolished their homes to prevent return. Reminded me of Israel with the Palestinians. And to put a point on the pencil of their guilt, Russia will not allow peacekeeping missions to enter or monitor the region post-conflict. Now, having spent months in the Baltic countries, which have been ravaged by war and Soviet occupation, I do not doubt the veracity of his comments.
On one of my wifi finding missions, I came upon a very nice Israeli couple sitting outside the rather posh cafe in Mestia set on the town square. The backstory to the wifi-finding mission is that a week previously, a major generator had gone out and both Abkhazia and western Georgia had been completely without power for 24 hours or so. Apparently this had affected internet signals somehow, because for the next week no one in Mestia had internet. I was a bit panicked as I had needed to respond to correspondence from my personal injury lawyer and knew that time was of the essence. In any case, I was bringing my ipad to the cafe for my twice a day wifi checks when I met this lovely Israeli couple. They were seated outside and conversing with 2 other Israelis. Apparently Georgia is a popular destination for Israelis – I had also met several in Bakuriani, a lovely ski resort near Borjomi, also in Georgia. The couple told me of their plan to drive to Ushguli the following day, and I asked if it was possible to join them. Ushguli is a 3 or more hour drive (in a 4 wheel drive) from Mestia, and is a much better example of life in Svaneti in the past. They agreed and we decided to meet at 9am outside the cafe.
The next morning I arrived bright and early. They came shortly and we headed on the road in a caravan (apparently 10 other tourist vehicles had decided to start for Ushguli at 9am). I quickly discovered that lo and ken were very important words in Hebrew – they seemed to populate every other sentence. (I found out later that they meant no and yes). Also, the tone used in normal conversation often seemed quite argumentative from a gentile’s perspective ;> I found myself a bit miffed and left out of most of their conversations, as I don’t speak Hebrew. I understand that it’s easier to speak in one’s own tongue than to strain with another language, but after a day of not knowing what was going on, it was easy to feel slighted. I ended up being a guide of sorts, which I have a predeliction for (even in places that I’ve never visited).
On the way, we passed forests and meadows filled with wild flowers the likes of which I’d never seen. The river and rock outcroppings were also magnificent, as were the small villages clinging to the sides of rocks or atop steep meadows. We arrived in Ushguli and stopped for coffee and cookies. I’m not a fan of instant, so declined in favor of Lipton tea. I’ve become a bit of a coffee snob, so that I don’t drink it unless it’s fresh ground (and preferably roasted). I drink it for the taste, not the effect. I don’t need to be more hyper than I already am ;>
After our repast, we made our way into the village to find the hostel that my carriers were planning to stay in. I hadn’t brought anything for the night (I usually travel with blinders, ear plugs, and herbal sleeping pills), so I was wary about staying, but Cohi convinced me. She is an excelllent negotiator and told me that she’d talk the hostel owner down from 70 to 35 Lari, which included an incredible dinner and breakfast. The tiny rooms were located in a traditional home, and the walls were made out of what seemed like 1 mm thick shingling material. You could hear a pin drop in the next room. But the meals more than made up for the manger-like accommodation. Besides, it was a very authentic experience, as most people in Ushguli probably sleep in similar environs. Cohi and I set off on a long hike toward the glacier after we visited Queen Tamar’s winter tower and museum (another challenging hike is Queen Tamar’s summer tower set upon a mountain overlooking the village, but I didn’t have time to do both). Our walk to the glacier was beautiful – rushing streams to jump, an unclear path, and lots of wild flowers. We had a dog accompany us from the village (it turns out he lived at the monastery, Lamaria), who ran ahead and would come back to make sure we were still alive and kicking. We stopped in a meadow after realizing that we should have crossed the river in a different place, and couldn’t continue. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d seen. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera, but Cohi kindly sent me a photo or 2.
On our walk back we had the mishap. Cohi threw her backpack across a very steep rushing stream before crossing, and it didn’t make it. I jumped down the hill and just barely caught the straps, but soaked my shoes in the process. We had a 45 minute walk back, and my shoes didn’t dry till the next day. On our way back, we stopped by the Lamaria monastery and entered. It was beautiful, very old, with some of the oldest frescoes I’ve seen anywhere on my travels thus far. Cohi, being ballsy, entered the living quarters of the monks, and got an eyeful before she was shoed out. She said they were quite luxurious. I thought of my time in the monastery in Abkhazia on the sea and how lovely the quarters were. On my way back to the hostel, I stopped at the ethnographic museum, which was essentially an old stone building. An old woman was eager to show me around, though we had no language in common. Her grand niece Marekhi stepped in and translated. She showed me beautifully wood-carved entry door and headboards for the cattle and sheep, as well as stools for the family members (especially beautiful was the chair for the man of the house). She told me about the rituals, including the one that the man would eat first, followed by the children, and lastly women. Apparently that was not the case in the distant past, only more recently because of changes in social structure. In past times, all ate together, and gender distinctions were much less pronounced. I asked if she could play the Panduri, a traditional Georgian three-stringed instrument. She said yes and proceeded to not only play but sing a song that sounded so sad, my heart broke not even knowing the words. Mareki said it was a song about a girl who loved someone but couldn’t marry him and died (it was more complex but I don’t remember now). Apparently it is generally used to accompany solo heroic, comic and love songs, as well as dance.
To put it in a nutshell, I fell in love with the old woman and was crying as I said goodbye. I gave Marekhi my email and heard from her soon after. She asked for my help with getting funding to rennovate traditional houses in Ushguli like her aunts. They are crumbling and although part of a UNESCO world heritage site, there are no funds to restore them. They showed me giant jagged lines running through the edifice and tower where earth trembles had shaken the stones apart. Apparently her uncle is an expert in traditional rennovation techniques and is writing a book about the area. I promised her and her aunt that I would do my best to try to find funding to restore these crumbling edifices. Sadly, during soviet occupation (Svaneti was not spared), almost 200 of the 400 towers were demolished. The Soviets appeared to hate culture and sought to destroy as much as they could with their own culture-less edifices (I do have a penchant for Soviet classical architecture though – looks a bit like Greek or Roman Neoclassical architecture).
I followed up with a detailed email to UNESCO in March, 6 months later, which I will follow up with a letter to the appropriate person. The letter reads as follows:
I am writing concerning the Chazhashi village within the Ushguli community, referenced by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/709. According to the protection and management requirements detailed at the end of this website, overall management is implemented by National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia and its division – Parmen Zakaraia Nokalakevi Architectural-Archaeological Museum-Reserve. I traveled there in August, 2015 and was asked by villagers to find financial resources so that they could restore the stone buildings and towers in their village of Chazhashi. I made contact with Marekhi Charqseliani, who acted as a translator (Georgian to English) at her aunt’s home in the village, which they currently operate as a museum. According to Marekhi, Mevlud Charqseliani knows how to repair the buildings and towers in keeping with traditional practices. I would like your assistance with finding the financial resources necessary to assist him in this endeavor. I have cc’ed both Marekhi and Mevlud in this email.
I understand that the village is listed as a national monument, and that the law prohibits any interventions on monuments without a prior permit from relevant state authorities and at the same time provides the highest level of protection zoning for these structures as to the elements of the World Heritage property. I also understand that the overall management and monitoring is implemented by the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia and its division – Parmen Zakaraia Nokalakevi Architectural-Archaeological Museum-Reserve. According to the website listed in the first paragraph, there is no Management Plan enforced. The local population and its traditional system of community management remain the key factors in the property management. Is it possible to assist the villagers with at least purchasing materials in order to achieve the goal of village restoration?
ICOMOS Georgia has actively worked on the different issues of Upper Svaneti cultural heritage and particularly on the site of Chazhashi village. In 2000-2001 a multidisciplinary research was implemented to study the different features of the site, including the community and social issues. Based on this research the Conservation Plan and a Site Development Strategy were prepared. These were followed by the rehabilitation-restoration projects for the historical buildings of the Chazhashi village. Can you describe for me the rehabilitation-restoration projects that have been undertaken in Chazhashi to date? I have discussed the project with potential funders in the US but have not at this time been able to secure a funding source. I would appreciate your assistance in locating funding, as time and harsh winters will continue to hasten the disrepair. Thank you for your assistance in this matter. If you are not the correct person to direct this correspondence, please indicate whom I should contact instead.
Later that night, Cohi and Abraham and I ate a sumptuous dinner and, after sitting in the lovely dining area for a while, retired to bed. The next day, before breakfast, I walked around the village (probably 30 people live there), marvelling at the silent streets and the way the early morning sun slowly illuminated the facing mountain. After we ate, we bid farewell to the kind grandmother who cooks for and runs the hostel (it was started by her husband, a doctor, who apparently died from the effects of alcohol) and the town from another world and made our way bumpily back to Mestia. I ended up having later adventures with Cohi and Abraham 2 days later in Kakheti – but more later. The next day I bid a sad farewell to Mestia and bumped my way for 3 hours down the very windy road to Zugdidi in a crowded marshutka. The driver, a very kind and lovely older gentleman, took a liking to me, and gave me a tourist postcard that had a photo of Mount Ushba towering over Mestia. It fell out of my pocket during the ride, but he found it and pressed it into my palm. I have it still. It turns out that age matters when you are looking for a marshutka driver – the older they are, the generally less testerone-crazed race car wanna be’s they are. The ride to Zugdidi was actually pleasant, and our driver was remarkably serene on the journey. Maybe it helped that he was a man from Svaneti. I think the Svans are a people apart. They are of the mountains, not any particular country. Probably true of other people isolated by geography. That’s why the most interesting places are islands and mountains, in terms of culture.