In the previous post I announced that I wanted to write more about Svaneti. And now I am faced with the problem of continuing to gather a huge mass of information, digesting it and reproducing it in an orderly fashion. Which I won’t be able to do. But maybe a post describing the day in Ushguli will work. Ushguli is at the upper end of Upper Vanetia, 43 km from Mestia. The road ends there and so does the trek from Mestia. It also has UNESCO World Heritage status. So I had to go and have a look.
I stepped on the road, a minibus stopped, a Chinese woman looked out and shouted “Ushguli, Ushguli” and I jumped into the bus. There were three of them and they had found a driver, but he wanted to pick up more people first. So we drove through the village and found a couple who wanted to go to another destination. Since they were paying, we went there and I got a sightseeing tour into a valley for free.
The sun was shining, another Asian passenger was found and we really took off. On the way there is a sight: the Tower of Love.
Legend has it that there was once a beautiful woman called Miaguli. During a festival, she met the skilled hunter Otia – and poof, they both fell in love. Unfortunately, there was a catch: Otia was already married and had 5 children. Otia was terribly saddened, but of course had to go on hunting and in the process he fell quite unhappily into a river and died. His wife could not bear life without him and also jumped into the river and died. The two of them turned into trout. Miaguli felt terribly sorry for all this, she persuaded her father to build her a tower (this one) and lived there for the rest of her life, feeding the fish. At low tide a spring appears under the rock – they say these are Miaguli’s tears. Sigh sigh….
The road went through a gorge and turned bad. There are landslides and stuff here and I was bouncing in my seat like on the “nicest” roads in Nepal.
And then we were in Ushguli. It is at the end of the gorge at over 2,100 m and is often cut off by winter snow on the road. There are 4 parts and about 200 people living here. The village of Chashashi has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 and is therefore a tourist highlight on many people’s itineraries for a trip to Georgia. It was felt that 90% of the tourists there were from Asia or Germany. For the sake of simplicity, I quote from german Wikipedia: “According to the UNESCO Commission, Ushguli represents a cultural area in which the construction methods of the defence towers and other, also sacral, buildings of medieval origin are uniquely combined with an impressive authentic mountain landscape (Criterion IV) and have been preserved to this day thanks to traditional forms of land use. This is closely linked to other authentic features of traditional Swanic life (criterion V) and guarantees the preservation of the existing human-environment relationship. Furthermore, the restriction to local building materials (stone slabs from slate quarries) and traditional handicraft techniques is emphasised – with a total of 200 counted buildings of medieval origin, the other districts of Ushguli are also included.”
This brings problems with it. The people are supposed to live there and continue their original lifestyle. However, this does not provide a good income and so many families had left the village. Through tourism, there are opportunities to earn extra money. Some have the construction possibilities, but have to be careful not to change too much. Some build new things on the edges, but have to be careful that it does not get out of hand. And then there are those who have migrated, who return at least for the season to earn money from tourism. But since they are not there all year round, they cannot continue their original way of life with agriculture and livestock farming. Great competition keeps accommodation prices too low. So there is now more inequality in the village than before and still no real prosperity. And all in all, there is not enough money to pay for the necessary (building) maintenance in the sense of UNESCO – these or other bodies do not contribute anything. And if you are no longer a world heritage site, you are no longer attractive to many tourists. All this is not so easy. There is no plan for everyone and no additional money, because it can’t really be done with the money they’ve earned so far.
I didn’t know this exactly when I walked through the village. But I felt strange because it looked so poor and there were so many tourists. By the way, these were mainly day visitors and therefore didn’t leave much money there – only chances: restaurants and horse rides. Here are a few pictures of the village:
Above the village is a church, St. Lamaria. Together with the building next to it, it looks extraordinarily photogenic. The church itself is just the smaller inconspicuous building, but inside it is surprisingly full of pictures etc.
Behind the church, a fantastic landscape opens up. Actually, it looked like nomadic country, but there aren’t any. Instead, my heart opened up. What a sight! That behind the clouds is over 5,000 m high. I walked the whole thing for a bit – I couldn’t make it to a glacier, I would have had to come sooner or stay overnight. But walking a bit was also great. Some people didn’t want to do that and also wanted to go further into the valley anyway, they took a horse. Here is a series of photos taken there.
By the way, the high snow mountains are the border to Russia. On the way back I met this team – grandpa leading grandson around on horseback for a walk.
Some people were busy with agriculture, which must be preserved at all costs. There was also a flock of sheep and goats and cows to see.
Those interested in the topic of Svanetia, especially in the changing times and in confrontation with modernity and tourism, will find many articles here: https://stefan-applis-geographien.com/
Svaneti is not only special because of these old villages with fortified towers, but even more because of its unique culture. But it is not so easy to summarise all this, because the regions within Svaneti are different and have gone through different things.
In Mestia you could see a film called “Dede”, which I did. Here is the trailer on Youtube
The movie is from 2017, but takes place at the time of the 1991-93 civil war. The men from the region return. David first takes his new mate Gegi to his village because he saved his life. He is engaged to Dina and now wants to marry her. But Dina does not want to marry him, she has never loved him. Besides, on some previous occasion she saw someone and spontaneously fell in love with him. So did he. It turns out to be Gegi. So she refuses to marry him, David and his family and also her family say there’s no way, it’s agreed, women have no say anyway, it’s against the order and so then a drama full of honour, death, pride and tradition starts.
The film also shows a bit of the hard way of life and the snow. The Svans have their own legal system with community assemblies, councils of elders and mediation courts without state authorities. The Russian conquerors wanted to change this – but the way to the high mountain valleys is long and the Svans resistant. Judgments are made on the basis of a traditional understanding of the law, integrated into the practical actions of everyday life. Values, social roles, religion and morality provide the framework. People have precise traditional ideas of how something should be – this can also be seen in the film. And then it’s exciting how religion is perceived. Actually they are Christian, but here they also have links to other spiritual ideas, especially about the dead, which also reach into the present life.
Here I would like to conclude by saying that I talked far too little with the people directly, I was too busy with the dog attack, among other things. But all in all, it’s all very exciting and of course also how the change to the modern age is taking place. And for me, it’s always been very exciting to see what happens with tourism.
In any case, I found the film terrible on the one hand because these traditions go so against my own ideas of life, and on the other hand good because it showed very clearly what life is like for people with different ideas.
And then I left Svaneti and ended up in a completely different part of the Georgian world again…..