Friday, July 22, 2011

Svaneti: The heart of the Caucasus

The final part of my trip to Georgia brought me to Svaneti, a remote area in the Caucasus and an important center of Georgian culture.  It is also widely declared as the most beautiful mountains in Georgia, a statement that I'd have to agree with and also one with a lot of weight since Georgia's landscape has nothing but beautiful mountains. The region is quite isolated, which is one major element that has preserved the pristine landscape there. 

The road to Svaneti has been in the process of being paved for nearly a year or two now, a topic of much discussion and also conflict in my mind. While Svaneti is becoming increasingly touristy every year since the government cracked down on banditry there, the people who make it to Svaneti are still quite a self-selected bunch who are willing to brave the incredibly long and uncomfortable process of getting there in order to appreciate what the region has to offer geographically and culturally. When the road is completed that will all change as Mestia will subsequently be accessible to busses and the tourists who frequent them. While tourism is the only major source of revenue to build Svaneti's economy and provide the financial support people there could really use through long winters,  I fear the road and what it will bring will significantly change Svaneti's cultural and geographical landscape.
(More Photos after the break...)

 Svaneti has the best example of a community based tourist initiative I have ever seen, with a great network of home stays, mountain guides, horse rentals and so on with no corporate tour-company middleman. With the development of the road, large hotels are also being constructed in Mestia, which although providing some jobs to the community, might ultimately undermine the hugely successful homestay system Mestia has that directly benefits the community.

After a short trip to Gori which was fairly unnotable other than when a tourist demanded to take a photo with me after mistaking me for Jesus Christ,  I took a night-train to Zugdidi.  From there I took a 5 hour shared Marshutka van packed to the roof with hikers like me, locals going home, and supplies ranging from bags of flour to cans of paint and letters  to be dropped off at homes on the way to Mestia, Svaneti's capital town. At the last minute, off a tip from a friend of mine, I managed to arrange to stay in my tent in the garden of Vaxo Pilpani's house, a well known musician and instrument maker from Svaneti. Staying in the house was cool as there was always something musical going on, generally centered on the porch where there was an old upright piano. There was also an abundance of children and elderly people, which I always find refreshing while traveling and generally only being among people my own age, and also a great way to learn to count in Georgian. Everyone sang constantly, and I was treated to a special candlelight concert when the power went during a huge thunderstorm. 

Upon arrival to Mestia, I decided to walk from where I was staying about 2 km to the center of town. A made it about halfway when some people sitting at a gas station called out to me. 2 polish mountaineers, a local Svan guy and Mestia's only mechanic, Andrei were sitting around a table so I sat with them. Andrei, although Russian, was highly respected in the community for his mechanical skills. Something that speaks for his personality and talent as a mechanic due to the very heavy tensions with Russians after conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia. It was with Andrei that I got a real taste of Georgia's drinking culture: I was doing well after two large plastic bottles beer were quickly finished by our group, but that's when the clear home made Cha Cha came out in a plastic pepsi bottle. This grape vodka is something like Grappa or Rakija, and very powerful stuff with a %40 alcohol content at the least. Andrei's idea of a shot was rather generous and after quite a few epic toasts in Russian and Georgian Andrei physically restrained me from leaving as I lost count of shots. I snuck pouring some out under the table, made up an American tradition of pouring your drink into another cup for friendship, and finally wriggled away in not the most presentable state.


The rest of my trip consisted of incredible hikes and horseback riding. Pictures speak better than words for this: Take a look at the panoramas I took. 

1 comment:

  1. awesome pics. I always love the new notes. keep it coming. douglas allen


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