Monday, August 31, 2015

In the Land of the Svans, Part 1

Mestia, the regional capital of Svaneti. Photo by Mitya

"When I was a kid, my mom always told me not to go to Svaneti. It's too dangerous there!, she said. And now, it's become the most popular tourist destination in Georgia! And this Ushguli - everyone goes to Ushguli now. I never heard about it growing up!"

This is what our friend Natasha (who grew up in Tbilisi and moved to Moscow in the late 90s) said to us when we told her about our most recent trip to Georgia. Many places in the world have changed since the late 1990s, though, and Svaneti is among them. The execution of the main robber baron in 2004 brought the crime rate down and made it safe for tourists to travel there. And in 2012, the current Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili had the road to Mestia (Svaneti's regional capital) paved, which reduced the travel time from 8 to 3 hours from Zugdidi.

That being said, I wouldn't say that Svaneti (or Georgia in general) is crawling with tourists. They're definitely there, but it doesn't approach anything you see in parts of Western Europe, Croatia, or Prague. So you can still come here and feel like you are discovering something new.

Svan child learning how to ride in Ushguli, taken on film by Michelle

Svaneti is situated in northeast Georgia, in the Caucasus mountains. The people who live there, also known as Svans, are believed by some to be descended from Sumerian slaves, and were once a fierce warrior culture. This is still visible in the Svans' reliance on horses today. The Svans have their own unwritten language (aptly called Svan), and because of the region's geographic isolation, they were able to preserve many of their traditions. They built towers in their villages to protect themselves from invasion and avalanches. The towers still exist today, some in good shape, others, in ruins.

Last time, we discussed how to get to Svaneti. Now, we will talk about what to do while you're there. The typical tourist itinerary would be to stay in Mestia for a few days and take a day trip to Ushguli. Your host would probably suggest that you take one of two hikes in Mestia (one is a grueling, all-day affair to a glacier, the other is a less grueling, 2-3 hour affair to another glacier), take the ski lift to the top of one of the mountains, and go to the Ethnographic Museum in Mestia. Then, on another day, you would be schlepped in a van with 6-8 other people for a long, bumpy, 3 hour ride to Ushguli. You would then have 4 hours to see this UNESCO World Heritage site before you would be loaded back onto the bus for the bumpy 3 hour ride back to Mestia. (You may think that 4 hours is enough time to see a small mountain village, but trust me, the people with whom we shared the van were practically running to see all the sights and make it back to the bus by 4 pm.)

Mestia airport. Flights are frequently canceled because of the winds. Photo by Mitya

And you may be happy with this itinerary, but the truth is, if the only places you've been to in Svaneti are Mestia and a 4-hour jaunt to Ushguli, you are seriously missing out. First of all, get out of Mestia. It is where you will probably stay a night or two, and it's home to some great postmodern architecture (such as the police station and the airport; another legacy of Saakashvili), but seriously, if you're going to Svaneti and you want to see authentic village life, you ain't gonna find it in the big city. Even if the big city has only a population of 14,000 people.

Hike to the glacier. Photo by Mitya

Here's what we did:

1) Took a hike (literally) to one of the glaciers. Yes, this is part of the typical tourist itinerary, but Svaneti is known just as well for its spectacular nature as it is for its preserved ancient traditions. We did the 2-3 hour hike because we wanted to visit villages in the afternoon.

Village off the main road, near Mestia. Photo by Michelle

Cows grazing at the entrance to Mazeri, Svaneti, Georgia. Taken by Mitya.

2) Explored some villages that were off the main road. This is where our previous suggestion to rent a car comes in handy.  We stopped in a few small villages off the road on the way to Mestia, and then we turned off onto a dirt road that led to the village of Mazeri. (There are also several small villages on the way here.) We saw a total of five tourists, a well-heeled mother walking on a dirt path with her children, an old man in a Svan hat, and a group of children playing cards, with the mountains in the backdrop.

Children in Mazeri playing cards. Photo by Mitya

We also saw stone houses that were most likely several centuries old, as well as a few Svan towers in ruins. We also saw pigs rolling in the mud, cows, horses, and a beautiful flower-filled meadow in front of the Caucasus mountains.

Pigs having a good time in Mazeri, Svaneti, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

Afternoon stroll in Mazeri. Photo by Mitya

A meadow filled with flowers just outside of Mazeri. Photo by Michelle

After Mazeri, we got back onto the main road and then took another turn down a dirt path that took us to the bottom of the valley, then up to the mountains on the other side. We wound up in what I believe is the village of Svipi. Now, Mazeri, while off the beaten path, is listed in Lonely Planet, so it does get some tourists (all seven of us the day we were there). Svipi, however, was not mentioned at all.

Cows hanging out in front of a house in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

When we came to the village, we noticed that the main hangout in town was a small wooden shed to the right of the abandoned house in the above photo. A group of Svan men invited us in to eat (they had vegetables that looked like overgrown bean sprouts) and drink raki (homemade alcohol). (I faked it.) There was also a pool of mineral water in the shed; we were invited to drink some from the cup that was dangling over it by a chain. They were very excited and curious about us, as I'm sure many tourists simply bypass this village.  They called their children over so we could take pictures of them, and debated among themselves whether they should allow us to take pictures of themselves (ultimate verdict: no).  One man also invited us to stay at his house for the night, but since we already had accommodation, we declined.

The local watering hole in Svipi. Photo by Mitya

Svan children in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

Mountaintop seen through the window of an abandoned house in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

We also talked to another man who told us that he was born in the village, but then moved and lived in Sokhumi (in Abkhazia) for 40 years and then, presumably due to the conflict, moved back here a few years ago. And, when we were about to leave, I saw a Svan man riding a horse through the village! Unfortunately, I didn't catch it on camera. If you're in Svaneti, I strongly encourage you to think outside the box and go outside of Mestia while you're there!

Next time: Ushguli!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Road to Svaneti

Shepherd going home, sunset, Svaneti region, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Guimon

As some of you may know, our most recent trip to Georgia was in fact our second time in the country (our first visit was in 2013). The last time we were in Georgia, we went to Tbilisi, the capital, hiked to the Jvari monastery in Mkskheta, went to Kazbegi and hiked from the Tsminda Sameba church to the glacier, visited the Davit Gareja cave monastery on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border (and crossed inadvertently into Azerbaijan), and spent several days in the Kakheti wine region in the east. I really wanted to see the regions of Svaneti and Tusheti, but Svaneti was too far from Kakheti for the time we had left, and Tusheti, though directly north of Kakheti, was only accessible by 4WD.

So, when we decided to come back to Georgia this year, Svaneti was at the top of my list of places to go. Svaneti is bordered on the north by the Caucasus mountains, and can only be accessed through two roads in Georgia, one which goes through South Ossetia and the other through the coast, which was, until a few years ago, unpaved and only accessible by 4WD. In fact, its legendary inaccessibility meant that, in times of war or forthcoming invasion, all the historical treasures were moved to Svaneti for storage. Although reaching the region is not as difficult as it used to be, especially since the main road from the coast to Mestia has now been paved, it is still quite a slog. Travelers coming from Tbilisi have the option of either a) renting a car and driving west to the coast, and then back-tracking northeast to Svaneti or b) taking an overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, and then a 7 hour marshrutka (public bus/van) to Mestia.

Since we like having flexibility, we opted for the DIY plan and rented a car. And having done that, I would actually recommend it to any future travelers. Having a car really gives you the option to explore a lot of areas in Svaneti (and around) and you can travel at your own pace.

If you went by overnight train, you would never see this cheery sign right outside of Tbilisi:

You would also never see this cool postmodern rest stop:

You would never be able to see and sample all the fruit on sale off the side of the highway:

And you would never see or taste this sweet Georgian raisin bread (some of the sellers put out fake plastic bread and keep the actual bread inside their stands!):

You would miss this former gas station turned coffeehouse:

And you wouldn't see the quirky side of the Georgian countryside, such as this:

And this:

You would also miss this glimpse of a post-apocalyptic world, with cows grazing in an abandoned soccer field:

And once you got to Svaneti, you wouldn't be able to buy honey from the beekeepers along the highway:

And I doubt they would let you out of the marshrutka to take shots like this:

And this:

And lastly, how could you miss this? (Is this really affiliated with Starbucks or not? Hard to tell. Even a Google search doesn't tell you much.)

Convinced now?

All photos by Mitya Guimon.