‘The road to Svaneti is meant to be the most dangerous in Georgia,’ warned a well-informed friend, ‘In summertime,’ he had added wryly. His words rang sharp as the battered little minibus skidded helplessly for the umpteenth time across the rock-ridden ice-track that was the winter road to Mestia, Svaneti’s most accessible tourism-equipped town. Accessibility is relative: reaching Mestia in January is no easy feat, involving an eight hour sleeper train from Tbilisi to a city just south of the High Caucasus, Zugdidi. From there it is a five hour journey into the mountains on the local minibus to which I refer. This particular road is not only notorious for its sharp turns, landslides and potholes, but also for the drunk drivers who reel around its every corner. Our driver was not drunk, but he was uncertain, which is just as bad, and when he ordered his son to stand atop the suspension and bounce the Ford Transit into submission up the icy incline, I began to wish we had taken the helicopter. It is only $50 after all, even if it is not guaranteed they will turn up to collect you again. Credit to the ten year-old’s strategic bouncing we made it to Mestia white-knuckled but alive.
Historically, Svaneti is home to Georgia’s most resilient peoples, the Svans, who throughout millennia have remained ensconced within their Caucasus fortress, playing out stories of vendetta, betrayal, honour and glory in icy remoteness. It is only in the last decade or so that Svaneti’s gates have creaked open to the world beyond, and whilst aspects of the modern world have seeped into its old stone walls in the forms of hotel developments, inflated tourist prices and the first inklings of a ski resort (although the majority of its visitors still come for the off-piste experience), there remains the undeniable sense that the region has been frozen in a medieval icebox. Climbing the mountain road from Zugdidi, the winter landscape preserves scenery unchanged: a man herds his cows across the rocky slopes where sledges for transport lie by the way; women in severe headscarves chop firewood by the roadside, and Caucasian dogs – beasts between wolf and bear – bark from behind the stony crags of ancient walls. Such scenes are not uncommon in Georgia, but in Svaneti they appear in the umbra of two hundred fortress towers casting shadows of myth and history across the valleys. These 12th century structures lie in wait, defiant against all time; squat, stone sentries on the mountainsides, ready to heave and shift into formidable life when the wind brings the whiff of invasion.
Despite the only likely invasions today being four-by-four loads of ski enthusiasts and summertime tourists, the towers are still in use by local families for storage or the odd museum, such as that belonging to the notorious Magiani family. Once a revered clan of Mestia’s rich and powerful, the Magianis have now dispersed into modernity, save the youngest son, who under local law must remain in his birthplace in order to keep the Svan bloodline rooted in Svaneti’s soil, and his industrious Ukrainian wife, who keeps the family coffers ringing by offering narrated tours of the well-preserved medieval home. Tours are only available in her native Russian, but the geniality with which she demonstrates cooking pots and recounts the evident hardships of daily life for 13th century Svans, excitedly throwing in the odd word of English when she knows it, dissolves the frustrations of language barriers.
Inside the house, visitors are invited to sit in the same benches around the slate stove as did hundreds of generations of Magianis and feel the weight of a million moments lived out in one room, where months were spent under siege by enemies or snow, and people and animals slept side by side; where the air hung heavy with the odours of sheep’s wool, manure, incense, baking bread and fifteen bodies wrapped in winter attire; where the patriarch brooded in his chair over the cacophony of clucking chickens and family quarrels, or where, on quiet evenings, a bored child traced idle fingers over carvings of pagan suns on her mother’s wedding trunk. When war waged, the men scaled the tower’s seven stories up the same ladders that the visitor now cautiously ascends. In a corner of each floor piles of fist-sized boulders still wait to be launched at the heads of enemies below, now to be let alone by passersby who come only to gaze from the roof at Orion thrusting his bow over Mount Tetnuldi.
Leaving Mestia the crumbling road continues, heading ever upwards towards Mount Shkara. For this part of the journey my companion and I had exchanged the guileless Ford Transit for a spanking new four-wheel drive of unidentifiable origin and with ‘Error’ flashing tirelessly on the information screen. For all its apparent faults, its burly driver managed to manoeuvre the reluctant car effortlessly up the mountain with little incident. Our destination was Ushguli, a huddle of four villages whose residents are closest to the sun in all Europe, going about their day to day lives at an altitude of 2,300 metres above sea level.
The valleys lining the Mestia to Ushguli road are pockmarked with clusters of dilapidated dwellings appearing all but abandoned. From their gap-toothed window panes smoke emerges, indicating the life within; frozen clothes hang solidly across the occasional washing line, bright against the brown and white shades of winter. According to accounts written by summer travellers, this route offers a drastically changing landscape of lush greens and thick foliage which fall and fade into the grassy plains of the High Caucasus. At this time of year, the snow dresses all in the same white guise, but the results are no less beautiful. Translucent tangles of frosted trees flank the road and snowflakes pile in the clearings thick as shards of glass. We drove through two villages, Nakipuri and Chajhashe, before coming to a stop at the third, Chvibiani, where our car’s driver had friends.
In summer, Chvibiani boasts a guesthouse or two and even a souvenir shop. In winter the village is not expecting visitors, but is nevertheless happy to receive them if a little cash is exchanged in the process. The first of these willing hosts was Marike, a jovial widow who runs the local ‘museum’. Happy for some company, Marike invites tourists to poke around her two brightly coloured rooms of inexplicable relics: fading Soviet holiday brochures, photographs of local heroes, stuffed mountain goats, dried animal skins, rocks, tools and, bizarrely, little feathered lumps of barely-recognisable stuffed birds which are Marike’s prize possession. She even performs a song or two on the local three-stringed changi. We were sorry not to take up her invitation of lunch, but time was pressing on.
Outside Marike’s museum, the village was another time capsule in itself. Save the occasional silver gleam of a car, Ushugli today – the surrounding mountains, the crunch of ox-carts over streets paved with frozen manure, the smell of hay and dried leather hides – is the same as the Ushguli of fifty years ago, or two hundred years ago. Or so it seemed until a local strolled by swinging a plastic ‘Dorchester’ bag. No doubt, it referred to the cigarette brand, but still, I pointed to my companion and announced in heavily accented Georgian, “He’s from Dorchester!” This small serendipity drew the man’s creases into a smile before he shuffled off down the track to join the other men, who appeared to be attending to a petition signing. No more blood settlements here.
As it turned out, Marike’s offer of lunch had been an exclusive opportunity. We were soon to discover that all the village’s eateries were boarded and closed, and regretted having turned down a good shot of cha cha (grape-based liquor) and slice of kubdari (beef folded into bread). Luckily, our stroll was intercepted by our driver, now in a far jollier state than when we had left him, and his friend, who arranged to have his mother rustle us up something from her fridge at a small price. Kete and her husband Boris lived in a three-roomed, tin-roofed abode with their two grandchildren and partially present son. They ushered us into the kitchen-cum-bedroom and presented us with water and tangerines. The atmosphere felt a little tense as she silently put meat into a sizzling pan and he stared at us from a stool across the room. I attempted some words in Georgian, but was answered in the incomprehensible Svan tongue. The little Russian my companion knew was met with disdain. So we talked amongst ourselves over the blare of T.V. commercials until bean stew and cuts of tender beef were placed before of us. The minute we sounded our appreciation through the universally recognised utterance mmmm, the tension lifted; wine was placed on the table and the grandchildren were brought through to practise their English.
Outside we met our driver and his pals enjoying an outdoor grill accompanied with homemade wine, which tends to be glorified grape juice or glorified vinegar, depending on your luck. Full of food and drink the driver was ever the more brash, and also eager to leave, having accomplished everything on his agenda. The sun was yet high and we were keen to explore some of the old fortresses higher up, namely Queen Tamar’s 12th century summer residence, whose four towers asserted themselves over the villages. Noticing our interest, the driver waved a nonchalant hand towards the fortress as if to erase it from the landscape, plucked a number from the top of his head, ‘It’s a four hour hike’ and steered us back to the car. We submitted to his impatience, reluctantly boarding the vehicle with its ongoing flash of ‘Error’ and stared back at Ushguli through the tinted glass as is disappeared behind the slopes. A small pack of Caucasian canines raced alongside the fuming black beast until they too fell back, tongues lolling. And Ushguli was gone.
By the time we arrived in Mestia the sun was throwing low, magenta beams across the snow. The stream below our balcony at the Ushba Guesthouse gurgled and glinted enticingly so that we couldn’t resist clambering down to its bank, stripping down to our vests, long-johns and leggings and laying down in its icy shallows. There is nothing that alerts the senses quite like the piercing fingers of freezing water; now the mountains, flooded in peach and blossom, stood crisp against the darkening sky; the fishy smell of the stream was sharp in the air, and the town stirred with preparations for the eve of Orthodox Christmas. Come nightfall, we sat, warmed by the lulling touches of vodka and ostri soup, gazing at the murmuring stream of people on their way to midnight mass. As the whole town huddled into the little decagonal church, Mestia fell silent. From the balcony we listened to the night’s silence mingled with the muffled chanting of hymn and prayer.
The peace was suddenly split by a long and lonely howl reaching out from the black valleys. I had never heard such a cry before, but I recognised it from films and childhood stories as the cry of the big, bad wolf. Witnessing that haunting wail as it floated between the towering silhouettes of Mestia’s stone-built army reminded me that fairytales are not only the fruits of imagination; it is from lived experience they sprang once upon a time when the world was a little more like Svaneti.