I tell you, the Svanetians are crazy. Their brains are deficient in oxygen.
– A Tbilisi resident describing how the high altitudes of Svaneti have affected its people.
Svaneti, the high Caucasus mountain region in the northwestern corner of Georgia, has a long reputation of fierce independence characterized by the 12th century defensive towers that still dot many of its villages. More recently, Svaneti has been feared as outlaw territory where bandits and escaping terrorists from nearby Abkhazia, Chechnya and Ingushetia took refuge as locals holed up in their homes with guns at the ready.
To many Georgians, Svaneti still echoes mysterious, beautiful, wild, and dangerous. Our Georgian friends, both anxious and supportive of our desire to explore this mountainous region, suggested taking a tour or finding a local guide to ensure our safety.
Unfortunately, the Georgian tourist infrastructure for the region is minimal and printed material is glossy, lightweight, and tends to point all travelers in the direction of tour operators. For independent budget travelers like us, the $150+/person/day price tag of a typical Svaneti tour was far too steep and didn't include much in the way of hiking or exposure to the people and culture of inner Svaneti, the “real” Svaneti tucked between the bookend touristed villages of Mestia and Ushguli.
Thankfully, a friend in Tbilisi turned us onto the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center, a newly opened non-profit organization whose charter is to assist and expand independent travel to and through Svaneti. The Tourism Center maintains a homestay network, can recommend local trekking guides and is currently in the process of marking hiking trails throughout the region.
Because of this and government efforts to improve safety in the region, travel in Svaneti is now accessible and relatively secure. The few difficulties – from bad roads to numerous drinking opportunities – that you may encounter these days will simply provide humorous color to your Svaneti experience.
Our Jeep, Zugdidi to Mestia
After slowly making our way across Georgia by marshrutka, we picked up a Russian jeep at the Zugdidi bus station on a Sunday morning. Bags of sugar, toys and other goods pile into the jeep while Audrey conducted a photo session with the driver. Ten passengers climbed in for a snug fit and we were on our way.
A male passenger took to us quickly, finding amusement in asking us a battery of questions in Russian. The women passengers, on the other hand, were a bit frosty. One passenger noticed her relatives in the jeep as she boarded and was visibly overjoyed.. When she saw us, however, the delight in her eyes narrowed to a squint of curiosity, skepticism and fear. Georgians had warned us that Svans don't like outsiders; we were beginning to feel the social frost taking grip of our jeep.
Fortunately, a few Russians at a UN checkpoint (near the Abkhazian border) provided a new target for the Svan ire. When questioned, the women in the car openly mocked the soldiers and gave everyone a laugh.
Not long after the checkpoint, a roadside stop appeared. Women decked out in blue eyeliner, short skirts and disco pumps dished out fresh khajapuri and kubdari for the occasional travelers and workers at a nearby dam.
After we downed a few slices of kubdari (meat and onion stuffed bread), the driver invited us to join his table for shots of rachi (a low octane, often homemade, version of vodka). We were relieved to see that he wasn't drinking. Excusing ourselves from a third (or maybe a fourth?) shot, we retreated to another table where the rest of the passengers were eating. The women and their daughters eyed our approach suspiciously, but eventually warmed up to us. Realizing that they weren't about to get rid of us, they offered us their food, agreed to have their photos taken, and even cracked a few smiles. The social frost was starting to melt. When we tried to pay for our food, we learned that one of the fellow passengers had already done so.
How Do We Get Rid of the Husband?
Back in the car, the driver asked me repeatedly about Dan's status: “Your brother, yes? We can find you a good husband in Svaneti.”
I responded: “Husband.”
“Brother?” they asked, just to make sure.
“Husband,” I confirmed. A flurry of conversation in Svan erupted as the group sent glances our way, gesticulated wildly and laughed deliberately in a way that meant the joke would only be private to us.
We could only imagine the conversation went something like this:
“We could get a lot of money for marrying off the girl in Svaneti.”
“Yes, but we need to get rid of the husband first.”
“If we drop him off that cliff over there, his body would float along and wouldn't show up at the UN/Russian checkpoint for four days, meaning it should be unrecognizable by that point.”
Imagined conversations regarding Dan's demise aside, our drive followed the syncopated rhythm of the Turkish music pumping out of the jeep's stereo. Deep gorges, emerging mountain passes and the thick grey rapids of the Enguri River defined an increasingly severe alpine landscape. Our rocky climb into the mountains included stops for water, vomiting, alcohol, cigarettes, oil checks, oil refills, and a hammer exchange with a broken-down Soviet bus.
An Introductory Drink
As if our journey up the mountain from Zugdidi to Mestia wasn't long enough, our driver seizes one last opportunity to draw it out even further. We turn off the road for the last remaining passenger. Mountain-framed pastures dotted with dairy cows give way to ever ascending peaks.
We're invited inside a covered stable area where the driver and the men of the house take a break. The table is covered in large, fresh leek-stuff khajapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) pies. Jugs of curiously pink alcohol are passed around and the tamada (toastmaster) tradition starts. A plethora of toasts to family, friends, the dead, Georgia, and Svaneti take us through a series of refills of fresh, sparkling berry wine. Although we don't know what to make of the whole thing, it's a friendly affair where nothing other than smiles and perhaps a few photo opportunities are expected in return.
As we'll come to find out, this is only the first of many toasts and opportunities for Svans to display their hospitality and open their homes and hearts to us. We quickly learned that the only physical danger we would face would come from Svan hospitality (outrageous amounts of food and drink), rather than from any violence in the region.
How to Organize Your Own Svaneti Trekking Adventure
- How to get there: From Tbilisi there is a marshrutka from Didube station leaving at around 6 AM (get there early though). Cost is 25 lari per person and takes around 12 hours. From Zugdidi, jeeps depart from the bus station near the Svan tower. Arrive at around 7 AM and then wait until the jeep is full to depart. Cost varies between 15-20 lari per person, depending upon the size of the jeep. Normally the trip takes 5 hours, but ours took close to 8 hours with all the khajapuri and wine/vodka stops.
- Where to stay in Mestia: There is a network of homestays in Mestia and it's not as difficult as it sounds to find a place to stay. We stayed with Msevinan (+995 99 14 97 93). Tsiouri is also well known and down the street (+995 99 56 93 58). Kakha (+995 55 49 51 18) and Koba (+995 98 43 27 31), the guys who run the guesthouse at the Svan Tower (next to the bus station) in Zugdidi, have a network of relatives throughout Svaneti. The Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Centre also has a network of families (35 Lari/person, including all meals). Even if you don't have a contact in advance, the driver in Zugdidi (or from Tbilisi) could probably find you a place to stay easily – everyone knows everyone.
- Where to eat: Homestays normally provide breakfast, lunch and dinner. You will never be hungry and depending upon the family, there may be large amounts of wine and vodka thrown in as well.
- Where to stay in Zugdidi: Kakha and Koba have three rooms for tourists near the bus station (look for the Swan Tower) – 15 Lari/person. Hotel Zugdidi has comfortable rooms with hot water for 40 Lari/double room.
- What to do in Svaneti: Trekking is the big attraction here. The Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Centre can provide information on where to go and arrange guides (40-50 Lari/day), if necessary. The Mestia museum (10 Lari) is interesting with 1000 year old books and religious icons. The Ushguli museum (10 Lari) is disappointing and well worth skipping.