05 January 2012

Welcomes in the Svaneti Region

The Svaneti region of Georgia – in the most remote valleys of the Caucasus mountains – is a land of contrasting welcomes. We have been invited into the homes of strangers and nearly forced to drink and eat at their tables. In every house, we are sat at the best seats, directly in front of the stove. One man invited us home to meet his mother; the two of them wouldn’t hear of us leaving until we’d finished a bottle of her blueberry liquor.
Another man – his face brought threateningly close to mine – asked if I had ever been to Alaska. I told him that I hadn’t.
“Ah,” he sneered, “this is like Alaska.” He swept his hand behind him, gesturing at the white crags. “Very dangerous.” He gave his head a strange tilt and turned away, spitting on the ground.

Indeed, guidebooks warn against hiking alone in the mountains, as armed robbery is common.
Until about a year ago, getting into the Svaneti meant taking a series of “marshrutka” vans across the country, then a long Jeep ride one hundred miles up a bad road. The journey from Tbilisi typically took about fifteen to twenty hours.
Now, there’s a tiny airport and occasional flights. We took a little prop plane on New Year’s Day, the only passengers; the Tbilisi airport was absolutely devoid of travelers, the security guards were drinking champagne and singing. The flight took about an hour, and was spectacular. The pilot leaned back from the cockpit to shout the names of different peaks and to point out tiny villages below. We skimmed above the summits, then came in low over Mestia, the capital of the region and its largest town. A woman in high heels came out onto the snowy tarmac to greet the plane. “Your hosts are a little late,” she said. “But you can wait inside.”
The Caucasus mountains are the highest in Europe, soaring to over eighteen thousand feet. The people here have lived in isolation for centuries, and have never quite gotten used to the idea of a larger nation. In the mountains immediately to the west, the South Ossetians have effectively seceded from Georgia, and live a hemmed in, militia life. A few miles to the northeast, Chechnya is still fighting for independence from Russia. Here, the Svan people speak their own language, a fifth-century branch of Georgian that has evolved into a unique tongue. One of our hosts said that he speaks modern Georgian only a little, and that he prefers Russian. In the past year and a half, a better road has been built to the outside world, and the marshrutka service has gotten faster (about seven hours to Tbilisi, in good weather) – but this is still a region apart.

Mestia is an ancient town, bristling with stone towers built a millennium ago (these towers are so interesting that they deserve their own post, to be put up soon). As recently as the mid-19th century, explorers in Svaneti found villagers wearing chainmail and carrying broadswords. The locals are fond of saying that they have never been conquered by anyone.
The mountains have been the real defense, for they themselves are nearly unconquerable. This was one of the very few areas of central Eurasia that was able to repel the Mongolian raiders, and Svaneti became something of a safe house for Georgia - many treasures from Tbilisi and Mtskheta were stored here when the capital region was threatened by invasion.
Like much of Georgia, Mestia is being spiffed up and made “modern.” Like in other places - especially the towns that Tbilisi considers potential attractions – the first thing to be built was a large, gleaming police station. Though there is still some danger in remoter areas, Mestia is mostly safe. There are handpainted signs everywhere advertising rooms for rent and “hostels,” though tourists are still an oddity. We stayed with this family, known in the village simple as "Alexi," the first name of the patriarch.
The Svan children are uniformly open and friendly. Two little girls walked with us for a while yesterday, laughing at our cameras and pointing at different buildings for us to photograph. Before they ran off, they gave us each a few pieces of candy from their pockets. Packs of boys out sledding waved and say hello, some introduced themselves, practicing their English. Two young boys, perhaps having exhausted their store of foreign words, yelled “I love you!” once we had exchanged names and basic pleasantries.
The mountains are stunning in a pure, white-lined, unreachable way. The landscape of Mestia is one of roaming cows, deserted buildings and litter. Broken and rusting cars line the roadside. Roofless buildings crumble. Dogs sniff and dart in the ditches, hoping for a scrap of food hidden under the beer bottles and candy wrappers.
There are hairy pigs running wild, and men smoking cigarettes. When we first arrived, the mud and rubble in the streets portrayed only poverty. Snow came, and Mestia felt ancient and pastoral.
In many guidebooks, for many countries, it's suggested that the only "real" way to experience a culture is to be invited to dinner at someone's house. In most places, this is much more difficult than it sounds - we've only rarely been successful. In Georgia, and particularly in Svaneti, there are more invitations than can be accepted.
Grigol, above, and his mother wouldn't let us leave - we literally had to back our way out the door, zipping up our coats and waving as we went.
We ate at this little bar for three lunches in a row - there was really nothing else appealing or open in Mestia. On the first day, we were greeted with suspicious looks and given curt service. The locals moved aside to allow us access to the fireplace, but their faces were very hard. On the second day, the waitresses smiled when we came in, and there were some grumbled "hellos." One man asked where we were from. On the third day, a cheer went up when we opened the door, and the owner came to shake my hand and kiss Rebecca's cheek.

No comments:

Post a Comment