Svaneti; the magical ceiling of Georgia

Every time I finish an overland journey, I decide that it was the last one that I would make. It comes as a complete surprise every so often to realise that I am neither getting younger, nor is my age staying still. Not, I have to emphasise that I am ancient, but simply that the virtues of Marriott Hotels and airlines are more pronounced than they used to be.

But then I look at an atlas, spot a curious journey and start thinking about it. I have two or three on the go at the moment actually, fomenting in my somewhat overactive brain.

And a combination my trusty National Geographic atlas and my Georgian friend Ia’s urging led us to book passage to Svaneti. Well, to be fairer, I booked it and then let my wife and two daughters know where we would be going for a summer vacation. They smiled, much in the sympathetic fashion of the nice, young men in crisp, white shirts who work in a rather specific type of hospital.

However, we went; back now in Tbilisi, I am once again drawing a moratorium on this kind of travel, but I am sure to break it when I finally get to go to the Guianas, one of the three current ideas. The journey is not easy, from Tbilisi it is an eleven-hour drive, and the last four (or first four on the return) are taken up traversing an extraordinary 160km road through gob-smacking scenery over a surface of loosely graded boulders deep into the high valleys of this remote region.

The scenery, it must be said, and has been by many others, is astonishing. This is a land that has never been invaded successfully and has a vibrant history, so well exhibited in the national museum in Mestia, for many, many centuries. The region is defined by its towers; these towers, defensive for both protection against aggressors, usually neighbours, and nature, in the form of avalanches punctuate the landscape. A traditional Svanetian house is large and capable of housing an extended family of people and animals – the winters are long and the snow too deep for the cows, sheep and horses. Attached to the house, but accessible often only to those who know the secret passage is a tower, some three or four stories tall.

And they are truly magnificent; statuesque and proud, they dominate the landscape of each of the villages that line the river valleys as the road climbed ever deeper toward the peaks of the Caucuses Mountains.

We stayed in Mestia which was, I have to say, a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a pastoral, gentle town (population 2,500) with a traditional feel, and a slow pace. What we found was a town transforming itself rapidly from such an idyllic spot into, and I hope I am wrong here, a parody of itself. Construction was everywhere; from the road, which I would welcome a smooth surface and a reduction of a couple of hours in the drive, the main square, new hotels, ski resorts and the whole nine yards of tourism development.

They, those whose jobs it is to make such decisions, must take care.

There is a terrific new hotel, The Tetnuldi, as well as the rather dreadful Hotel Svaneti where we stayed, whose owners are developing into a ski resort. I spent a couple of hours discussing the project with them, and can see how torn they are between the necessity for a commercial enterprise to have a certain business volume with the desire to retain the characteristics of the place that make it desirable in the first place.

The views, however, were outstanding, and almost impossibly beautiful. In the evening the towers in the town were lit (a balance between authenticity and tourists’ interests), the surrounding mountains were always dramatic and the community braced for change.

And so, in search of an even more difficult drive to an even more remote place we headed off to Ushguli, reputed to be the highest permanently populated village in Europe, lying up at 2,700 metres, and only 45 kms (two and a half hours for heaven’s sake) of a bouldery and lumpy drive further from Mestia.

It was really pretty interesting though, and certainly came closer to my expectation of Svaneti. I had forgotten, of course, that part of living a life that shares flakes of a medieval existence involves “roads” and “paths” that are ill graded, and more animal waste than my urban sensibilities enjoyed. I was very happy that I wasn’t spending a week here, although I would love to have spent at least one night, rather than only a few hours.

Without a car it is tough to get two; as over 90% of the folks who live there have a car, there are only two marshrutkas (small, tight communal taxis) go each week, and the journey is rough.

It is, however, a paradise for experienced hikers, and there are two-day and longer treks marked through these mountains from Mestia, an expedition that would be a highlight of any seasoned walkers’ bucket-list.

As the day wore on, I became increasingly consumed by a simple but important question. In this remote destination, with appalling access and a very limited local market, do they deliver actual toilets? Who would do this? Would the community’s facilities have moved noticeably forward from the fourteenth century? Do they have bath tubs? I didn’t actually need a bath, but once the mind starts off on a track like this, it is difficult to rein it in.

Oddly, and to my great relief, there has been at least one delivery of solid porcelain toilets, installed well and perfectly functional. It is a minor point, but I have to say and important one. Whether this was the only one in Ushguli, or if the sales rep that made the trip there had a bonanza day I can’t say, but the pricey but very welcome cafe in town came as a welcome relief.

So intestinally fortified, it was sadly time to retrace our footsteps; Ushguli is lovely in a slightly ruined sort of way. Ruined enough to excite UNESCO who have designated it as a world heritage site, and isolated and quirky enough to satisfy the needs of most, if not all, travellers who actually make it to the end of this road.

The ride back seemed, as is always the way, faster than the way up. The bumps seemed smoother, the bends in the road less vigorous and the scenery now lying under the soft light of evening was possibly the most dramatic that I have ever seen.

I fear that Svaneti will change, but then again, I am not a Svan, and have no say in their ideas of development. With the bulk of the building out of the way, and the extraordinary detritus of heavy construction removed, though who knows to where, it will be lovely. More accessible, but still hard enough to deter many and keep the region’s unique balance of dramatic scenery, ancient tradition and fresh, fresh air firmly together.