Many of the most beautiful places in the world are also some of the hardest to get to. As though Georgia weren't hard enough to get to from the Western world (only the terrible and infamous Wizzair offers anything affordable from Europe, and from the States you can forget about coming cheaply), the Georgians decided to put their best regions behind the cloaks of exotic mystery that lie behind insurmountable mountain passes. But then, part of the allure of Svaneti isn't just the beautiful mountain panoramas, ancient ruins or dauntingly pronounced name, it`s also the way there. Both the journey and the destination are wrapped up in one single package of adventure.
|The Inguri River|
Svaneti is inhabited by a people called “svans” (pronounce “swan” like a German and you’re close enough). They’re known for extremism, thinking slow, cutting a guy for looking wrong at his wife or sister, and having their own unique language, though in the same language family as Georgian. Being high up in the mountain passes, it’s also one of the “purest” of the Georgian stock, rarely being successfully invaded or conquered, and has often in the past led a somewhat quarrelsome existence with the Georgian “mainland”, though at most times did serve some sort of servile role to the crown of Georgia, and always served as a sort of religious escape, even to the extent that the Georgian kingdoms often stored their religious treasures there during times of trouble. The famous Georgian king, a woman named Tamar, even had a summer residence there, in Ushguli, keeping them loyal to the crown with her yearly visits.
Though there's a new road to Svaneti, no one can yet rightly call it accessible. And maybe Svaneti should never be easily accessible, as it might dilute the austere and traditional Svani culture that still exists there - though it is certainly in its death knells, the last battles of this survival against the beast of globalization are being fought in the streets of Mestia, the capital. The road there is three hours up from Zugdidi, with only nearly broken down marshrutkas making the way (20 GEL each), or Megrelian taxi drivers eager to make a deal (100-150 GEL for the car). And of course, that's from Zugdidi, one has to get there as well, and the only way for that is by marshrutka from
Kutaisi or Tbilisi,
or by train. I've discussed well enough in this blog the thrills of both of
these methods of travel. All of this, sadly though, means that most visitors to
are forced to miss Svaneti. But again, maybe that's better for the Svans, since
tourism has a way of destroying some cultures. And anyways, who really wants to
be inundated with tourists? It's of course a trade - tourists mean money and
development, but it also means an endless flow of annoying entitled people who
often don't really care about your environment or culture.
|The road to Mestia|
The road to Mestia is beautiful. There are no other words. It starts in the lowlands of Samegrelo, right near sea level, following up the sometimes broad, sometimes raging, Inguri River to its highest point at the summit of Mt. Shkhara, some 17,000 feet up. The Inguri is dammed in the middle point by a gigantic hydro-electric plant that is one of the largest in the world. It also serves as the border between the breakaway region of Abkhazia and
and as such is lined with troops and sharpshooters from both sides. When our
taxi drove us, access to the sight of the dam was closed as someone had just
been shot. The zone is one of the older "frozen conflicts" caused by
Russia, forgotten by most of the world as Putin has now stirred up trouble
closer to Europe's heartland.
Mestia is an odd town. On my first visit, I hated it. The center had been wrecked by reconstruction, many of the older, architecturally relevant buildings had been torn down and they had constructed something that looks like a loose mockery of
Aspen, Colorado, which itself looks like a loose mockery of Switzerland.
When I told my then host, who was of the family responsible for the construction,
the Japaridzes, how I felt, he was naturally angry. "Maybe we want to look
he rebutted. And in his rebuttal, I could hear what was tacit, the thought
"because we are backwards and you are forwards." He could never
imagine how all those people of Colorado
simply dream of a place like his, of historical buildings that date back
thousands of years, of their own historical root of architecture and culture.
We Americans have to constantly invent new things in order to define ourselves
and can sometimes cause the lack of a real concrete definition. It’s no shame
to already have a defined culture, and it’s no shame to redefine that culture,
just be sure to keep standing on one’s giants and to keep building upward.
|Colorado or Svaneti?|
Today, those buildings are all finished and most of the construction downtown has waned. All of those new buildings are, for the most part, empty, except for a token amount of restaurants and bars - about three or four total. Some of the construction mysteriously lags onward, but it's been cleaned up and organized much more than since last I was there. Not exactly progress as promised, but still, progress. There’s no place for breakfast, and only a Baltic/Ukrainian owned bar for after hours partying, but the interior there completely lacks inspiration, so that’s not even that worthwhile a visit. There’s another place on the wretched main square - Seti square - called Laila, but with the absurd tourist prices that’s hardly worth a visit. The better food can be found on down
in one of the newer buildings. Not really sure the name, but it’s definitely
got solid khinkali, and good Svan specialties like kubdari (meat pie) and
chvishtari (corn bread made with cheese) and beer not at exorbitant tourist
prices. Also was recommended by our host at the guesthouse, and I only
personally witnessed Georgians eating there, so must be legit.
This time I had come with my family and my friend, for a short stay of three days, though two of those days were a bit taken with traveling there and back. So really, just one whole day, which isn't at all enough for visiting Svaneti, but again, you take what you can get. We stayed near the center of town, at the Sana Guesthouse (30 GEL per room with two or three beds per night), right up from
Square, the aforementioned ersatz Swiss section of
town. The Sana
is a nice place, or going to be nice place - the owner constantly working on
some improvement project, so this is a gaurantee. The bedrooms are all quite
comfortable, but the lounge room isn't quite finished, still in need of some
paint on the walls. The bathroom is nice, along with a balcony with a nice view
of the town, especially perfect for long talks at night with beer, which is how
my friend and I passed our evenings.