Hard travelin’ in Svaneti

The Svanetian village of Adishi
The Svanetian village of Adishi

You might like to pour yourself a glass of wine. In the words of the Woody Guthrie song, I have done some hard travelin’ and this blog is long. Most of it is in diary form, covering five days, and I end with one concluding thought.

MAY 22

I have a guide. Lasha Tkeshelashvili is a young man with good English and solid trekking experience. The aim is to walk for four days, with Ushguli, one of Europe’s highest settlements, as our destination.

We head east out of Mestia and the town’s small airport below us gradually looks even tinier as we climb through woodland and meadow. With great mountain views to the north of us, Lasha talks about how local people used to cross these high places to find work in Russia.

“My grandfather has told me that in Soviet times many men from Svaneti used to cross by foot through passes to Russia, to Kalbardino-Balkharia. If they started out at five by two or three in the afternoon they could be in a small Russian town called Baksan.”

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, no one crosses these high passes today.

Lasha also talks about how he came to choose guiding.

“When I was nine years old my grandfather took me to a glacier for the first time. He was taking cows and bulls to the fields and we continued to the glacier. A year later I took my younger brother there. For me it was like I took some drug and after that I went to the mountains every summer.”

After university he spent three years as a loan expert in a bank, but as he tried to work with loan figures images of mountains kept dancing before his eyes. So he quit.

Shortly we reach the highest point of the walk and then it’s down a pine-scented path for a coffee break in the home of a relative.

The road to Ushguli
The road to Ushguli

The rest of the day is an easy walk following the Mulkhura river. Lasha tells me that wolves sometimes swoop down from the forests into this valley and kill livestock, including cows. This tends to happen, he says, at the onset of winter.

Another piece of information is that plans are advanced to build a ski resort. We see the chairs for a lift stacked on the valley floor and pylons for the chair lift are built. Wolves and skiers could soon be sharing a valley.

After walking 14 km we arrive at our guesthouse, in the village of Zhabeshi at the top of the valley. The house is distinctively furnished, with a stuffed bear in the main room and a copy of the tragedies of Shakespeare, in Georgian of course, in my bedroom.

The evening is a real highlight. Before travelling to Georgia I had heard about the tradition of the supra, a banquet presided over by a toast-master called a tamada. The guesthouse owner, Giorgi Naveriani, decides that our meal together is a supra. He presides and Lasha translates.

We drink home-made apple vodka and Giorgi’s first toast is to God. “The first toast is to God everywhere in Georgia,” explains Lasha.

The second toast is to the archangels Michael and Gabriel – this, says Lasha, is the standard second toast in Svaneti.

The third toast is to St. George, which seems only fair. “We believe that St. George will give us many sons,” explains Lasha.

The fourth toast is to the memory of those who died and we all spill a libation on the floor.

Giorgi carries on: “The fifth toast is to peace, first in our souls and in our families and then in the world.”

Lasha then proposes the sixth and last toast – to St. Mary, who will look after our families.

A little mischievously, I ask Lasha whether it would have been acceptable to sneak in a toast to Manchester United, say, as the fifth offering. Lasha is adamant that this would not be acceptable. As the sixth toast then? Yes, that would be fine.

It seems the first five toasts are girded around by strong tradition and all in all I feel that I have been given a glimpse of the Georgian sense of the sacred. In my mind I had built up the tamada as a rather loud, life and soul of the party type. But Giorgi is softly spoken and the whole experience is profoundly moving.

MAY 23

We set out in a southerly direction from Zhabeshi and start climbing. After two hours we reach the snow line and walk through groves of rhododendron. We’re tackling an ascent of 800 metres, walking up to 2400 metres. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but snow is a game changer.

“We use twice as much energy in snow,” says Lasha and my aching body agrees. We finally reach the highest point of the hike and take a break.

After lunch we’re walking along, minding our own business, when a crackling roar bursts all around us. Then we see smoke rising off the mountain, about 300 metres ahead of us and to the right. Lasha voices my thoughts. “I think that is where the lightning struck.”

It is my first experience of thunder and lightning up quite so close and personal. It is terrifying and somehow all of a piece with the grandeur of the Caucasus. Further on we watch an eagle, soaring higher and higher until it is lost from view.

We walk down past great banks of primroses. Suddenly, after an 11-km walk that has taken seven hours, the village of Adishi comes into view below us. It looks exquisite with its Svan towers.

Svan towers in Ushguli, one of Europe's highest settlements
Svan towers in Ushguli, one of Europe’s highest settlements

But when we reach Adishi I revise my view; it looks like a disaster zone. Practically all the stone buildings are in ruins and many of the newer wooden ones are abandoned and in decay. Dotted around in this scene of desolation are a few inhabited houses.

In a sense, Adishi is a disaster zone; Lasha says an avalanche hit it in 1986. No one died, but many buildings were damaged and some villagers left for good. When we reach our guesthouse, the middle-aged owner tells us that 11 families live in Adishi, as opposed to some 45 in his youth.

These remote villages have mains electricity, but today there is a power outage and our dinner is cooked on a wood stove. This does feel like back country.

Lasha tells me that the nearest school is nine km away down a jeep track. The children go off on Monday, stay with family near the school and head home on Friday.

The guesthouse looks after us well; the table is well-laden and the blankets are thick. The peals of laughter that come from the mistress of the household suggest that Adishi has not given up hope.

The village has no fewer than four churches and we visit the tiny medieval church of St. George, with frescoes inside and out.

It has been a monumental couple of days. To ground myself in the familiar and to let Lasha hear the sound of Welsh, I play on my phone Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem, as sung by Cerys Matthews.

MAY 24

From Adishi, the logical route would be through the Chkhutnieri Pass to the southeast, but this 2722-metre pass is covered in snow and walking there could provoke an avalanche.

Instead we walk northwest along the track taken by the schoolchildren, following the tumbling waters of the Adishchala. It is a stroll in the park after the previous day and I see a dipper, bobbing on a stone in the river.

At the village of Bogreshi we join the jeep track to Ushguli which we will follow all the way to our destination. We are alongside the Enguri, another fast-flowing Caucasus river swollen with the melting snows of spring.

After a 22-km walk that takes eight hours we bed down in a guesthouse in the village of Lalkhori. In the bedroom, a bust of Stalin stares down from on top of a wardrobe. It is so much nicer to be greeted by the Bard than by the Vozhd.

MAY 25

The last leg of the journey to Ushguli. In places this is a very dramatic road – the views to our right are of rocky crags and rushing waters as the Enguri darts through narrow ravines.

One feature of walks in the Caucasus is the need to cross boisterous brooks. Close to Ushguli I cross one on horseback, after a man out cutting firewood lends me his horse.

We cover the nine km to Ushguli in three hours. The village doesn’t disappoint – it has atmosphere and history. It is actually a group of four villages, 2000 to 2200 metres above sea level, and one of the highest settlements in Europe. Lasha says that the medieval Queen Tamar of Georgia had summer and winter residences in Ushguli. The remains of her summer residence stand broodingly on a hill.

Lasha guides me to a homestay, where the lady of the house is providing food and white wine for two elderly neighbours who have spent all day helping her to plant potatoes.

Time for fond farewells from Lasha – it has been such a treat to walk with him. We have hiked together for 56 km and our conversations have ranged from the retreat of glaciers to the habits of wolves, from the problems of rural schooling to the Svan hunting goddess Dali.

Back in the late 20th century, when economic and political turbulence swept the Caucasus, Svaneti acquired an unsavoury reputation for crime. But in the early years of this century the Georgian authorities came down hard on bandits and during this trek Svaneti has felt no more dangerous than the English Lake District.

MAY 26 

I do my first solo hiking in the region and set out from Ushguli in glorious sunshine for the glacier on Shkhara, generally considered the highest peak in Georgia and the fourth in Europe. (Its altitude varies depending on which map you consult. The map I am using, by terraQuest, says 5203 metres. The highest point of Shkhara is in Russia.)

Shkhara, Georgia's highest peak
Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak

Except for a few wisps of cloud around the summit, Shkhara is visible in all its glory – great ribs of rock but mainly a landscape of snow.

This is one of the classic hikes of Georgia, but I have the trail of eight km practically to myself. The path follows the river Enguri which has its source on Shkhara and it’s an easy walk, with the majestic mountain ahead encouraging me on. Towards the end of the hike back I see two Georgian border guards and a boy on a horse. I commune mainly with cows and super-abundant frogs.

Nowadays glaciers can induce feelings of melancholy. Work published this year by scientists at Tbilisi State University said that in 2014 the Shkhara glacier was about 300 metres shorter than in 1960.

After the hike I need transport back to Mestia, 46 km to the northwest and connected mainly by rough jeep track. The going rate for jeep transport is 200 lari (about $87) but I get lucky and hitch a ride with Israeli tourists. They are travelling in a convoy of five SUVs and I am directed into a vehicle of Russian-speakers.

Inside the vehicle I am in a different world. A walkie-talkie crackles and conversations on this and on mobile phones set the mood. Georgia feels very far away.

I learn that my fellow passenger in the back was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. He comments that Georgia is poor. With limited Russian I can’t respond adequately, but try to tell him that in all five of the Svanetian houses where I have stayed the families have the usual range of modern things – television, fridge freezer and washing machine. Lasha tells me that thanks partly to tourism, standards of living in the region have risen considerably over the past decade.


One concluding thought – Heroes of Our Time

There is one cruel irony about Svaneti.

The Svans are doing the right thing by the Earth; they plough with bulls for heavens’ sake. You can’t get more low-carbon than that. During 11 days in Svaneti I have seen innumerable bulls at work and two tractors.

But all over the Caucasus the glaciers are melting because most of the world rushed into fossil fuel madness.

The Svans farm the way they do not because they have read learned papers on climate change, but because this is the way they have always farmed. However, in no way does this alter the importance of their contribution.

All of the families worldwide farming in traditional ways, with little or no use of fossil fuels, are surely heroes of our time. They should be honoured. I would give all of them the Nobel Peace Prize at the very least.

In the Caucasus at last

The view to the west when I step out of my guesthouse in Lenjeri
The view to the west when I step out of my guesthouse in Lenjeri

I try to rein in the superlatives, but never in all my days have I been anywhere lovelier than the Caucasus in spring.

Being here is an experience that ripples right through me, like opening up to a new love.

I am staying in a village called Lenjeri in the Georgian region of Svaneti, known beyond its borders for its stunning landscapes, ancient culture and living traditions of music and dance.

Let me give some geographical context. The border with Russia is 12 kilometres to the north of Lenjeri. Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, is about 40 kilometres northwest of me and Sochi, the Russian resort which hosted the last Winter Olympics, some 250 kilometres to the west on the Black Sea coast.

The view to the east from the village of Lenjeri

When I walk out of my guesthouse, the view over to the west is to die for – spring flowers, trees in blossom and the heights of the Labskaldi Range covered in snow. To the north and to the east are the snowy peaks that form the border with Russia.

Several times now I have walked from my guesthouse along the road to Mestia, a town about 40 minutes by foot to the east. I feel familiar now with the road’s sights and sounds. Every day there are men ploughing the rich earth with oxen, a team of two animals for one plough. Pigs usually scavenge by the roadside. Up on the wooded slopes towards Russia, I often hear a cuckoo sing.

I see the distinctive Svan stone towers built over the centuries to protect villagers from attack. The culture of Svaneti is rich and the people here have their own unwritten language, related to but distinct from Georgian.

The region reminds me a little of Transylvania, in the sense that it is another example of a peasant society producing much of its own food and another great feast for the eye.

Men ploughing with oxen, seen from the road from Lenjeri to Mestia
Men ploughing with oxen, seen from the road from Lenjeri to Mestia

In case you decide to come to Svaneti, let me give you the lowdown on how to get here.

Take the centre of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, as the starting point. From Freedom Square, ride the metro out four stops to Samgori. An announcer tells you in English which stop is coming up next. (This is useful. Bear in mind that Georgian has its own beautiful but daunting alphabet. Not that the metro bothers very much with prominent signage in any language.)

Leaving Samgori station, emerge onto the road and turn right. After about 100 metres there is a small area where a few minibuses are usually parked and a sign in the English alphabet says Mestia.

With the help of the tourist information office, I had learned that a vehicle was due to set out for Mestia at 7 a.m. The office had booked me a seat. The fare for the eight-hour journey is 30 lari. (Current tourist rates are about 3.5 lari to the pound, 2.6 to the euro and 2.3 to the U.S. dollar.)

The vehicle turns out to be a Nissan Serena SUV. For the first hour we do the rounds in Tbilisi, picking up passengers. Eventually we set out with Giorgi at the wheel, plus five adults, two children and luggage. As the solitary foreigner, I get the seat of honour in the front.

The journey takes us past Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, where the Caucasus are already in view.

We continue to Zugdidi, not far inland from the Black Sea. To the Anglo-Saxon ear, this name does not sound promising, but Zugdidi turns out to be a fetching town with fountains, gardens and views of the snow-capped ranges to the north. There’s a moral here somewhere.

After Zugdidi we start to climb and soon Giorgi is negotiating a serious mountain road. For lunch we stop at a roadside restaurant in the mountains. Driver and passengers sit at one table. Tasty Georgian fare appears and we all tuck in. Giorgi refuses to let me make any financial contribution to lunch and we press on.

I have a contact in Svaneti, the friend of a friend of an old Reuters pal. His name is Vakhtang Pilpani. Both he and his father are noted musicians in Svaneti and he runs a guesthouse.

Giorgi calls him on his mobile and says that we have reached his village, Lenjeri. Giorgi has barely finished the call when we stop in front of a vehicle parked in the road. It is Vakhtang.

With black pigs scampering at our feet – there are always animals on Georgian roads – we transfer my luggage to Vakhtang’s vehicle. Almost immediately Vakhtang delivers a short discourse on the English language.

“There are three kinds of English,” he tells me. “There is American English, there is British English and there is Svanetian English. I am a specialist in Svanetian English.”

I discover that English is actually Vakhtang’s fourth language after Svan, Georgian and Russian.

When I tell him that I have some Russian he is visibly relieved.

I have been chilling out in Vakhtang’s comfortable home, just drinking the place in. I love the names of the mountains. Ushba, Tetnuldi, Shkhara, Akhalgazrdoba, Chkhunderi, Mudurbani. They are such appropriately hard names for mountains made of granite and shale.

When I hear a Svan speak the name of Ushba or Shkhara I feel I am listening to a character straight out of the pages of Tolkien. Some of that granite has surely entered Svaneti’s DNA – these people are tough. They are also skilled musicians, producing deep, sonorous sounds that go back so far in the human story.

Vakhtang, seated in front, leads a music group singing 4000-year-old songs
Vakhtang, seated in front, leads a music group singing 4000-year-old songs

Svan music is known internationally and Vakhtang tells me that his father, Eptime Islam Pilpani, now 81, has been to Paris three times to perform as a musician.

I am lucky enough to hear Vakhtang and his music group play for some German tourists. Vakhtang tells them that several of the songs the group is singing date back 4000 years.

The evening’s entertainment includes a virtuoso linguistic performance. The tourist group leader, a young Svanetian woman, translates all of Vakhtang’s comments, spoken in the Svan language, into German. As she tells me: “Es ist nicht einfach.” Not easy at all, I can imagine, but this tour guide, Tea Totogashvili, surely has one of the world’s ultimate niche products.

To see more of Svaneti I will be travelling by foot. Mestia is the end of the road for all motorised transport except jeeps. I hope to set out soon with a trusty guide.

First impressions of Georgia

The old town in Batumi, known for its mix of architectural styles
The old town in Batumi, known for its mix of architectural styles

Church bells. Lying in bed at Batumi on the Black Sea shore, I hear church bells. It is a sound with emotional overtones that sets off memories of home.

After a 21-hour bus ride across Turkey, one of the heartlands of Islam, I am once again in a mainly Christian country. I have arrived in Georgia. It is a little counter-intuitive so far east of Istanbul to be in a land that considers itself so very firmly to be part of Europe and of Christendom.

Georgians and their neighbours to the south, the Armenians, are proud of being the first nations to convert to Christianity early in the 4th century, before Theodosius adopted it as the state church of the Roman Empire in AD 380.

I am staying in a hostel in Batumi’s old town, an attractive medley of houses, many with balconies. The town is known for its variety of architectural styles, including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Neo Classical and Italian Baroque.

I pop out to a corner shop to buy milk for my breakfast. The shopkeeper has a face that seems to be a landscape of nervous tics. He picks up a bottle of something that is not milk and pours me a shot, all the while winking and saying in Russian “Home-made, home-made”. Eventually, despite the earliness of the hour, I feel obliged to down the lot. This is, of course, an attempt at a sale, but it feels like my first encounter with the legendary alcoholic hospitality of Georgia.

Batumi is the first Georgian town I have seen. It is both port and seaside resort, but Batumi has neither golden sands nor crashing surf. A wide pebble beach stretches south as far as the eye can see and the Black Sea looks rather like a giant mill pond.

I have never felt quite the same about this stretch of water since reading Neal Ascherson’s masterly book “Black Sea”.

Ascherson writes: “The Black Sea is the world’s biggest single reservoir of hydrogen sulphide. Below a fluctuating depth of between 150 and 200 metres, there is no life.”

The huge accumulation of H2S has occurred because five major rivers run into the Black Sea – the Danube, Kuban, Don, Dnieper and Dniestr. The great volume of organic matter from these rivers has shaped the chemical composition of the sea. The Mediterranean, by contrast, receives the water of only three major rivers, the Rhône, Nile and Po.

Batumi has sought to supplement what the Almighty has given it with some very attractive gardens and pedestrian boulevards set back slightly from the shore and a series of initiatives which include a gambling industry. A taxi driver tells me that Batumi has 15 casinos. They certainly loom large in the town and if you itch to bet a fortune at the gaming tables there is no lack of opportunity.

I have hit a seaside resort in the off season and it is what it is.

One evening I am the only customer dining in a restaurant in the old town. Into this very sleepy atmosphere slips a brisk young man who sits at a nearby table. In clear North American tones he tells the waitress: “I am from New York.” Then, after a brief pause, he adds plaintively: “It is very quiet.” There the conversation ends, confirming his point.

Batumi has not always been quiet. Historically, western Georgia has played a very canny game, with involvement in the key commodities of the era. Wealth, at least for an elite, and occasional violence have been running themes.

In the Ancient World, this region was one of the centres of gold and silver mining. According to the Georgian National Museum, gold mining began in Georgia in the fourth and third millennia BC. Western Georgia was the ancient kingdom of Colchis, which features in one of the most famous stories in world literature.

The Monument of Medea in Batumi
The Monument of Medea in Batumi

This is where Jason came with his Argonauts to steal the Golden Fleece. In Batumi, they have erected a very tall monument to Medea, daughter of a king of Colchis who fell in love with Jason and became his wife.

There is still gold in them thar hills, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it is oil that has caught the attention of entrepreneurs, revolutionaries and governments.

In 1901 a young Georgian revolutionary later known to the world as Stalin came to Batumi and soon found work with the Rothschilds who owned an oil refinery in the town.

According to British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore: “On Stalin’s first day at work the Rothschilds’ refinery mysteriously caught fire.” Stalin spent some time imprisoned in Batumi.

But this Bolshevik arsonist did not halt the march of the Caucasus oil industry. In 1906 the world’s first long-distance oil pipeline opened, linking the oilfields of Baku on the Caspian Sea to Batumi, which was now clearly a nerve centre of the world economy.

A few years later the British army came to Batumi, drawn like Stalin not by the charm of the pebble shore but by the oil. A British military governor backed by 20,000 troops briefly ruled the region just after the First World War.

I feel that I have arrived in a country with so many interesting threads that I could sit here for days writing, writing and writing. I will open up next one more thread in this post because it seems to me so important.

From Batumi I have travelled on to the capital Tbilisi, a six-hour bus ride covering about 360 kilometres. I have crossed more than half of the country. My overwhelming impression on the bus journey was how green and lush the landscape is, how richly covered with trees.

On the road to Tbilisi - trees cover nearly 40 percent of Georgia
On the road to Tbilisi – trees cover nearly 40 percent of Georgia

I have dug out a few official statistics. Nearly 40 per cent of Georgia’s territory is forest. England, by contrast, has a little over eight per cent of its land covered by forest and even back in the 11th century Domesday records show that the figure was only 15 per cent.

Georgia can still boast of brown bears, wolves, lynx and jackals, indeed more indigenous animals than any country in Europe except for Russia.

For the past five weeks I have been either in cities or on buses and trains. I feel the wilds of the High Caucasus calling me and I must away.