From the moment we arrived in Mestia off Mr. Angry Georgian’s Wild Ride, I was hooked. I’ve spent a lot of time in and around mountains, long before I arrived in Nepal on that fateful day over a year ago. As the story goes, when I was like 4 and my brother 8, our parents gave us the option of taking a family vacation to either Disney Land or Arizona. For some reason, we unanimously answered, “Arizona.” Since then, it’s been a long progression of passion for the outdoors and mountains in particular that has led me to some of the world’s grandest ranges: the Rockies, Himalayas, Pamirs, Tien Shan, and now the Caucasus.
And for some reason, the Caucasus were never on my radar until I arrived in them. Even when I was researching and applying for English teaching positions in Tbilisi, I was thinking more about how cool that city was. Besides a single photo that sparked my interest in the region several years ago, the actual Caucasus mountains have largely stayed under my radar. Until the week I got to spend in them.
As we’ve been (slowly) making our way through a few different ventures into the Georgian Caucasus, I’ve been trying to figure out how each of these regions are unique. You may recall that we talked about a region called Khevi, where the village of Stepantsminda is. Just like how Khevi is home to an ethnic group called the Mokheves, Svaneti is home to its own indigenous people, the Svans.
The Svan Language
When it comes to researching these small, lesser-known peoples, robust resources are a little hard to come by (in English, anyway). But what little information I can glean shows the Svans to be an incredibly interesting group. Up until Soviet rule in the 1930’s, they had their own demographic in the Georgian census. Since then, however, they’ve simply added to the tally of “Georgians.”
Since embarking this year-long ride, I’ve become increasingly aware of and interested in the sheer number and diversity of languages there are. When I was first told that Nepal, a country comparable in size to the US state of New York, has 123 distinct languages, I was enthralled.
Georgia, a country of 3.7 million, has at least 14 languages spoken within its borders. Georgian in the only official language, though Abkhaz is spoken in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Svaneti, the Svan language is spoken. UNESCO has classified Svan as an endangered language, meaning so few speak it that it’s in danger of disappearing entirely. Many languages have already disappeared from all but the history books, and many even from those.
Despite the small amount of speakers, Svan is divided into a few dialects and subdialects. Mestia and Ushguli are in the northern half of Svaneti, called Upper Svaneti. The overall dialect of Svan here is Upper Svan, which has about 15,000 speakers. In the region of Upper Svaneti that includes Mestia and Ushguli, a further subdialect is spoken: Upper Bal.
Svan is such a unique language among even its own language family — the Kartvelian languages of South Georgia — that it’s not intelligible by speakers of other Kartvelian languages. The sounds of the language are much more diverse than is normal for Caucasian languages; Svan has 18 vowel sounds while Georgian has just 5. It’s wild. Take a listen to some native speakers of Svan and see for yourself!
Georgian is already a wild language to see and even wilder to hear, but Svan in general doesn’t really have any sort of written presence. As such, the majority of signs that you see in Mestia are written in Georgian or English.
That, to me, makes it all the more interesting, and all the more important. Svan is a remnant of the ancient Caucasus, long before any concept of “Georgia” existed. It’s a direct line back hundreds of thousands of years, passed by word-of-mouth through generations since the days of antiquity and beyond. Furthermore, its existence is a symbolic “last stand” against the wave of globalization that is sweeping through everything, on one hand making the world more connected and accessible but on the other steamrolling tiny cultures that deserve to exist as they are for their own sake.
When I first began English teaching in Kathmandu, a Nepali friend of mine who also taught at my school told me something: Language is culture. You can’t learn a language in a vacuum; to learn a language is to learn the culture. Likewise, to learn to function in a culture, you must learn some concept of the language.
In Kyrgyzstan, I had to learn to read Cyrillic so I could figure out where transports were going.
Did you know that modern-day Icelandic is so unchanged from when Iceland was first settled 1,000 years ago that speakers can still read the ancient Icelandic Sagas?
When I went into the Langtang Valley with my friend, we encountered a new language with virtually every village we passed through. Language and culture are so intertwined that you really can’t separate the two.
For starters, Svans tend to refer to themselves as Mushuan. It’s believed that this roughly corresponds to and is a reflection of the ethnic group that predates the Svans/Mushuans, the Misimians. Though the Misimians are gone, their descendants are still very much the mountain people they always were.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Svans have inhabited Upper Svaneti for at least the last 5,000 years, and possibly before that. Their cultural and historical region stretches from Upper Svaneti across Abkhazia to the Black Sea, but within the last several thousand years, that has concentrated to Svaneti. Due to Svaneti’s location in a virtual mountain stronghold, it has remained largely untouched by the waves of foreign powers that have swept through the Caucasus, from the Mongols to the Persians to the Turks. As such, much of the Svan people’s cultural heritage has remained intact for a long time.
Like the rest of Georgia, the Svans are Orthodox Christian with special reverence to Georgia’s patron saint, Saint George. However, due to Svaneti’s relatively isolated existence, some remnants of ancient religions that predate Christianity remain and have been assimilated into what strikes me as an alternate Christianity. There’s a pantheon-like collection of revered figures, of whom Jesus is just one. How many people adhere to this, though, I can’t say.
Svaneti has also been a hotbed of art. Some of Svaneti’s most famous sons and daughters are filmmakers, actors, poets, and dancers. The region is known in particular for a unique style of music, which I just don’t know how to describe so I’ll just show you. What I can say is that I feel that music tends to reflect the landscape. I don’t know if it’s because I simply know that a given style of music is native to a given area so I just make that connection or if there’s something more. But I do know that when I listen to this music, it immediately transports me back to this place. Its feels as natural in the environment as the wind and animals.
When my brother and I returned from our visit to Chalaadi Glacier, one of our colorful guides told us that her younger brother was dancing in a festival in Mestia. She invited us along, and of course we went with.
What we saw was some of the most complex choreography and intensity I’ve ever seen. Deep voices boomed and dozens of dancers came running onto the stage, jumping acrobatically and stomping their feet like they themselves were the mountains. Every so often, the men would step back while girls in billowing dresses floated across the stage like snow, twirling and calling their fellow dancers to attention one by one.
Each group of dancers got progressively older, starting with a dozen who couldn’t have been more than 10, progressing until they were all our age. Whether the dancers were 10 or 25, there always remained a ferocity and grace that I’m glad to have witnessed.
The Svanetian Towers
Among all the curiosities of Svaneti, there’s one that really captured our attention. It’s unique to the region and it’s already been the primary subject of many of the photos I took in Ushguli and Mestia: the Svanetian Towers.
As we explored Mestia and Ushguli, we tried theorizing what the purpose might be, especially since they still seemed to be in use. Nearly every night in Mestia, when we were exploring or chilling somewhere, we could see people atop some of the towers. So first, we thought they were houses. Then in Ushguli, there was one particular tower with a sign that designated it as grain storage. Then we thought they were like grain silos, which made enough sense that I didn’t question it.
But once I started researching them a little in preparation for writing about them, I realized we were wrong yet again.
Svaneti has a long history of blood feuds. Yeah, blood feuds. Modern blood feuds aren’t so much a thing (in most places), but for the tribal Svans of Medieval Georgia, they were an ever-looming threat.
Relations with the other peoples of the Caucasus in present-day Russia and Ossetia weren’t always peaceful. Attacks could come at any time. Sometimes they were simply by desperate people who needed resources, and sometimes they were from other Svans. Svanetian blood feuds of the Dark and Medieval Ages were no joke. Beginning with a sleight one family commits against another, feuds often lasted for generations until the reasons were forgotten or faded into local legend. Whatever the cause, some families weren’t always safe from their neighbors, much less their actual enemies.
Because of the nature of these blood feuds, the normal defensive route of building a wall around the village didn’t work. What’s the point of a wall when it traps you with your enemy clan?
Hence, around the turn of the ninth century, defensive towers became the norm in Svaneti. They proved to be impregnable, and so the Svans continued to build them for several hundred years. There’s over 200 of them in the four villages that make up Ushguli. After all, Svaneti is the highest inhabited place in the Caucasus. In Medieval times, getting there wasn’t easy. Getting siege weapons like catapults there was just not possible. The landscape was too rugged and harsh. So all these towers really had to defend against was guys on horseback with swords and bows and arrows.
And they did it wonderfully. Generally, they were designed in such a way that they could be inhabited and defended at a moment’s notice. Entrances were far above the ground. Sometimes that meant a wooden ladder leaning up against the wall that allowed families to scale up to 12 feet and take the ladder with them.
Sometimes the entrance was accessed through upper levels of the family home. Whatever the case, the doors could be sealed with large rocks, leaving the family inside with all their possessions to wait out the storm. Towers were as high as 5 stories, able to house entire families. When not in times of blood feud defense, towers often just held important items, like religious texts or the family wealth.
The Svanetian towers remained steadfast holdouts for hundreds of years, but their construction came to an abrupt halt when gunpowder made it to Europe through the Mongols. Though Svaneti remained a mountain sanctuary from the Mongols as it had with the Turks and Persians, it’s believed that the new technology caused the Svans to just rethink their defenses. Whatever the cause, tower construction came to an abrupt end around the beginning of the 13th century. But they were so well-constructed that we get to talk about them today.
We stepped out of our marshrutka in Mestia with shakey legs, teetering down the street as our driver counted his money. The couple who tried to get off the van before the angry driver returned looked back with wide eyes, hurrying down the street towards the sanctuary of their hotel.
The marshrutka left us in the main square, downtown Mestia. Downtown is loosely used, of course. A few lodges and cobbled homes lined the street. Restaurants here and there, serving up hot khinkali to travelers and locals wandering the darkening streets. A cold wind blew down the mountain and people huddled closer in warmly-lit bars. An almost Christmas-like air hung over everything. And beyond, the mountains loomed.
We hurried down the street in the direction of the hostel we were staying at. It took a little work to find it, but soon we were climbing the iron spiral staircase outside the building to our room. We wanted to get out into the town with our cameras as soon as possible while the light remained. It was the first time we had seen the Svanetian towers, and we were intrigued.
Mestia is one of those places that just invites you in. There’s something in the air. After spending so much time in Nepal and moving through some pretty inhospitable places, I’ve come to feel that extreme places create much more inviting atmospheres. Maybe Mestia isn’t the most extreme of places, but it’s straight-up inaccessible for half the year, under snow cover higher than car roofs. That does something to a place. It creates something intangible that, when you enter it, you’re immediately aware of yet totally unable to articulate. Hence, this paragraph where I keep dishing out variations of, “I’m not sure how to describe it.”
There’s a vibe. Anyone reading this who has been to these places will recognize what I’m talking about. I’m sure you’ve had the same problem with describing it as I am. Imagine a rainy night. Car lights and neon reflect on the wet pavement. Restaurant windows cast golden light onto the sidewalk; their patrons seem warm and happy, their conversations are inaudible. But the window captures a scene like a Renaissance painting and invokes something.
That’s what Mestia feels like — ambient coziness. It’s a cup of coffee on a snowy day. It’s putting on dry socks after finally taking off your wet shoes. It’s the patter of rain on your tent and deciding you don’t need to step out into the cold just yet.
We spent each night on a different balcony, watching the town from whatever vantage points we could find. At night, lights illuminate the towers, creating a string of Christmas lights that extends up and down the valley. All the trekkers have come down from the mountains and are gathering in whatever bar or restaurant has space. Outside, roving packs of the biggest street dogs I have ever seen wander about, spreading friendliness and fleas. In a park near the center of town, huge Svan guys arm-wrestled each other on elevated tables built specifically for the event. Their cheers echoed into the surrounding alleys, sometimes combated by barks of the heavyweight street dogs.
When we had our last bit of downtime, we headed out into what might be considered the outskirts, where Mestia starts to gain elevation in the narrow valley. In the center of town, the Mulkhra River flows besides gradually-sloping banks. But further out, that turns to a deep gorge that cuts a section of town off from the rest. Sitting above it is the Saint Nicholas Church, a hilltop monastery that overlooks the valley.
That last photo is the church — there wasn’t enough space for a good photo on the small hilltop but luckily there was another vantage point further down the road.
The road circled around further down the valley, where the dispersed buildings grew closer together in Mestia’s outskirts. A lot of buildings were under construction. Cows wandered down the road. Guys worked on cars. People hung out on benches. The sun was going down even while we were still at the Church of Saint Nicholas and was mostly set by the time we made it back into town.
We were bound for Tbilisi the next day. Only a few days were left before it was time to move on from Georgia, but we still had to explore the capital and see what we could see. But for now, Mestia was good to us. Our return to Tbilisi meant the final exit from the mountains for me, bound for Tbilisi and then the Black Sea.
So let’s see what that’s got in store.