Europe’s fierce, fabled villages

 
The Caucasus Mountain region of Svaneti is home to high mountain peaks, thousand-year-old defensive towers and an intense indigenous people who are trying to keep traditions alive.
 
Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Audrey Scott)

Life in Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains

Fabled to some – unfamiliar to many – the Caucasus Mountain region of Svaneti is home to high mountain peaks, villages dotted with thousand-year-old defensive towers and a passionate indigenous people known as the Svans. Although they bear an ethnic relationship to their fellow Georgians, the Svans have been living in Georgia’s remote northwest for centuries, creating a language and lifestyle that is all their own. Over the course of three days, we trekked 65km through the Upper Svaneti region, from Zhibeshi, a village just outside Mestia (Svaneti’s administrative capital), to Ushguli, the highest inhabited village in Europe. More than just a physical challenge of hiking up and over mountain passes, the trek gave incredible insight into the challenges the villages and its inhabitants have faced, navigating the fine line between modernizing and keeping past traditions alive. (Audrey Scott)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Daniel Noll)

A jeep in the hills

The most common way to reach Mestia is by road from Zugdidi, a city in western Georgia that’s accessible by bus or overnight train from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. From Zugdidi, local families and visiting trekkers pile together into shared jeeps and minibuses, driving into the hills on winding roads along perilous cliffs; various roadside shrines remind travellers how precarious mountain life can be. The 130km between Mestia and Zugdidi used to take six hours, including a stop at a roadside restaurant for kubdari, a local specialty of meat-stuffed bread, but with recent road improvements, travel time has been reduced to about three hours. (Daniel Noll)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Audrey Scott)

Scouting the village of Adishi

Although a few trekking paths in Svaneti are marked, most are not, making it easy to lose your way between villages. We hired a local guide named Avgan Naveriani via the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center in Mestia to help lead us through the mountains and organize our homestays along the way. More importantly, however, Naveriani served as a cultural interpreter, helping us understand the region and its people through the lens of his and his family’s personal experiences. Naveriani is a proud Svan, having spent his entire life in these mountains. Pictured here, Naveriani scouted out a homestay in the village of Adishi, located about 12km southeast of Zhibeshi, , where we spent our first night of the trek. We were arriving at the homestay unannounced, so Naveriani used the binoculars to be sure that the family we had in mind was indeed home. Most village homestays included a place to sleep and a home-cooked meal shared with a local family. (Audrey Scott)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Daniel Noll)

A symbol of resistance

The Svan Tower, one of Svaneti’s most recognized icons, symbolises the area’s resistance to invaders and inspires local pride. Found across the region in both inhabited and abandoned villages, towers such as Svaneti’s were built mostly between the 9th and 13th centuries, though it is estimated that the oldest date as far back as the 1st Century BC. Although locals historically used the towers to defend the region from Byzantine and Russian invaders, Svans also used the structures to protect themselves from each other during local blood feuds: fights used to regain honour if a person insulted another family or clan. Women, children and the elderly would hide on the first floor of the tower while men would climb higher to launch projectiles from small windows on the top floor. There’s little information available on how frequently the feuds occurred at the time, but interestingly, blood feuds continue, at least occasionally, to this day. The tribal elder’s role is to mediate feuds to promote payment (cows or cash) instead of spilling more blood. (Daniel Noll)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Audrey Scott)

A view of Shkhara Peak

On the second day of our trek, the clouds cleared and the 5,193m-high Shkhara Peak, Georgia’s highest mountain, came into view. Unsurprisingly, given the region’s mountainous terrain, the weather in Svaneti is unpredictable, easily shifting between rain and sunshine several times over the course of a day. We trekked early in the season – mid-May – when mountain peaks were still covered in fresh snow and valleys were just beginning to turn a lush green. (Audrey Scott)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Daniel Noll)

The abandoned village of Khalde

Life has never been easy in Svaneti due to its relative isolation and the challenges of a primarily agricultural economy. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, some villages in Svaneti have been completely abandoned as the Soviet agricultural and other subsidies that villages depended upon vanished. On the second day of our trek, en route to the village of Iprari, Naveriani walked us through the village of Khalde, where his mother was born. Abandoned homes remain filled with personal items such as family photographs, as though villagers had to flee quickly. In the years that followed the exodus, the facades of many homes have served as a canvas for graffiti; here, an aspiring artist drew a portrait of Lenin. Ironically, Khalde resisted the Russian army for four months in 1876 as the Russian Empire tightened its control of the area, but the village eventually succumbed. (Daniel Noll)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Daniel Noll)

Svan storytelling

The Svan language lives on as a lingua franca, relying on oral tradition for its survival. As we walked, Naveriani shared stories that shed light on both Svaneti’s distant past and present challenges. He talked about young Svans leaving their villages in the hopes of finding greater opportunity in larger cities, as well as his dream of Svaneti becoming a magnet for trekkers whose dollars, euros and Georgian lari might entice locals to stay. (Daniel Noll)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Audrey Scott)

The highest village in Europe

The final stop of our trek was Ushguli: technically four small villages positioned at the base of Shkhara Peak. At an elevation of around 2200m, Ushguli is often referred to as the highest continually inhabited area in Europe – a claim to fame that all of the locals will remind you of. But its elevation also means Ushguli is covered in snow for about six months every year, making it quite difficult to reach. (Audrey Scott)

Georgia’s high Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti (Credit: Audrey Scott)

Mountains beckon

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Svaneti served as a hideaway for bandits and criminal gangs. But over the last decade, the Georgian government has actively worked to remedy this by sending in government forces to maintain law and order, making the region once again safe for travellers to explore. There are two sides of Svan culture – one fiercely resistant, the other fiercely hospitable. By crossing mountain passes during the day and sharing a meal and stories with a Svan village family at night, we had the opportunity to see both sides, gleaning clues as to where this region came from and where it may be headed. (Audrey Scott)

Source: BBC