Among the Svan
Text and photos Ray Nayler
Our first real taste of Svan hospitality comes halfway along the lonely road to Svaneti from the hardscrabble Georgian city of Zugdidi. Dato, the driver of our Soviet-era UAZ, pulls over at a small roadside café, the first inhabited point along the road for kilometers, and waves us inside. It is a welcome respite from the road; a pot-holed and winding track that has begun to deteriorate seriously the further we push into the high mountains, winding precariously along alpine reservoirs and valleys greening with spring.
Dato smacks the café-owner’s bottom as she sets our meal on the table. The café-owner punches him in the arm as she walks off, grinning. In the other room we can hear her arguing with the woman who has just cooked our meal, alternately yelling and laughing.
Lunch is a heaping plate of Kudari, steaming minced-meat pies so spicy we drink the tea immediately, even though it scalds our tongues. Dato sprinkles his with red pepper from a greasy shaker on the table. As the meal ends, we attempt to pay, but he grunts our money away and pushes us out to the waiting jeep.
It is mid-day, and our morning started early in Batumi, where we caught a marshrutka at the main bazaar for Zugdidi and then strolled around in our backpacks, lost, until Dato found us and piled us into his primer-gray, ancient-looking UAZ. Now we have been bouncing along for another three hours on taut suspension, with the dust of the dry mountain road pouring through the cracks in the car’s frame, coating our backpacks, our clothes, our faces. Dato rubs his belly appreciatively after our lunch, turns the key and we start off again, half-drugged by spicy food and mesmerized by the stunning Caucasian scenery that slides past the window.
Isolated in their villages deep in the mountains of Georgia live an ancient people whose culture has remained almost unchanged for 4,000 years
Svaneti is one of the remotest regions of Georgia, a mountain nation locked in the high Caucasus and so removed from the rest of Georgia that its people, the Svan, speak their own eponymous language, an incomprehensible dialect that split off from the main Georgian tongue four thousand years ago. The most striking feature of the Svan villages are the stone towers that dot them, standing like ageless sentinels. Designed to serve as protection against invaders and protect families during the blood-feuds that often tore through these communities, they seem both impossibly anachronistic and timeless. When I ask Dato if there are still blood-feuds here, he shrugs. “There are problems. Not so much as in the past, but these things still happen. People used to bring their guns with them on this road. Now, they leave them at home.”
Though times have improved, Svaneti is still a nearly lawless region, where the only real protection from bandits on the roads is the Svans themselves. The track winds through villages where semi-wild pigs root in the muddy ditches and herds of cattle create brief mountain traffic-jams. The villages nestle in impossibly green valleys, surrounded by sub alpine pine and chestnut forests, their leaves still bare in late April from the hard mountain winter. We stop at a spring and fill our bottles with cool, mineral-rich alpine water, one of the many riches of this nearly untouched wilderness. Dato occasionally slows the UAZ to chat out his driver’s window with a villager, their creased and weather-beaten faces making them almost identical to one another, brown and hard as masks.
Svaneti has survived nearly unchanged for thousands of years, so remote that while the rest of Georgia fell to the Mongols, and suffered from a series of other foreign invasions, church icons were transplanted here for safekeeping, where they still are kept in the houses of many of the local inhabitants. Even under the Soviet Union, the local ways of life changed little, and the region enjoyed a relative autonomy almost unheard of under the Soviet hegemony that surrounded it.
It is dark when we finally reach Mestia, the capitol of Svaneti. The sun, as it is wont to do here, has slipped quickly behind the mountains leaving only a reddish glow along the ridges, like a distant fire, which then extinguishes completely. When the UAZ stops in front of the guesthouse where we will be staying, and its engine shuts off, the only sound left in the village is the distant call-and-response of dogs barking.
Our intent on the next day is to trek into the surrounding mountains, along the foothills of mount Ushba, whose twin granite peaks reach into the cloudless blue sky like fangs. Ushba, the most culturally significant of the mountains surrounding Svaneti, was once thought to be inhabited by evil spirits. It is associated with the hunting goddess Dali, who could transform herself into different animals copses of chestnut, hornbeam and spruce. Rivers sprout tiny tributaries which cut across the rudimentary mountain paths, and we find ourselves fording these muddy trickles a hundred times. Below us, the village shows itself as a scattering of roofs in a rolling green valley, eerily studded with towers that serve as a constant reminder of the region’s lawless past, and perhaps uncertain future.
Later we climb one of these towers, clambering up wooden ladders through level after level where food would have been stored while the family waited out the minor or major catastrophe that had precipitated their retreat. Our guide explains to us that these towers were often connected to several houses via secret tunnels and passageways. Each family carefully guarded these secret paths to safety from other clans in the community. Now, in these times of modern and mechanized conflict, these towers seem vestigial. Even policing here seems low-tech. In the town square, we pass by a young man with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, cheap sunglasses, and a windbreaker with “Criminal Police” in English on the back; presumably to reassure foreigners as almost none of the locals speak any English, and all communication so far has been in Russian.
At night, with several of the towers eerily lit up by greenish flood-lamps and with the baying of dogs, the fairy-tale village seems haunted; a feeling added to by the small crosses penciled over the doors of every room in our guest house, and the looming fangs of Ushba outside in the darkness. As I walk down the street, the occasional streetlight casts a dim yellow pool into the shadow of the mountain night.
Suddenly, I hear the pounding of hooves and a shriek from behind me. As I turn in surprise, two barebacked horses with their young riders plunge out of the dark and back into it again, the sound of hooves fading as they cross the bridge into the upper town. Teenagers amusing themselves in a way that has probably been the same for as long as most of the silent towers around me have been standing.
Where to Stay:
An excellent base for exploring Svaneti is the Nino Ratiani Guesthouse (country code 995) (899) 188-355 in Mestia. We stayed for $10 a night, including meals, and Nino arranged transportation from Zugdidi with her cousin, in a battered but serviceable Soviet-era jeep that handled the rutted road into the mountains well. The beds were comfortable, the shower was hot, the food was excellent, and the crosses penciled over the doorways presumably protected us from marauding spirits. Nino speaks some English and Russian and her husband is an excellent guide, both to the surrounding mountains and to the hospitality in the villages themselves.