After a week of imaginary travels in Zugdidi we finally feel ready to head towards the place that had been haunting our own imagination long before starting this travel. The land of the Svans is just 106 km away from us but also 3000 meters above and, as we well know, distance in the mountain should not be counted in kilometers but rather in hours. We walk out of town heading to Mestia and so many people ask us if we were going there “peshkom” (on foot) that we start to daydream of mountain walks even when those are still just a background at the end of the road. But common sense tells us to keep the trekking energy for later on and try hitchhiking up there despite the supportive enthusiasm of the locals. As we slide up the mountain roads, the air gradually freezes. First converting to ice the roadside grass, then sculpting icicles out of the water dripping inside the tunnels, finally taking over the road and building a sort of kilometric ice-skating court, that we sail with the aid of talkative Mingrelians and silent Svans.
Finally, Mestia appears in the horizon as the night falls. We silently walk its narrow roads, populated with the three dimensional versions of the famous medieval towers we have so many times seen in pictures. The protective function of the towers is interwoven with their use as dwellings – they were built by each family to defend themselves from invaders, that included the neighbouring villagers, or natural disasters. But in many cases, their 12th century’s service is decaying by now and we were curious to peek through some of their broken windows in search for an abandoned shelter to spend the night at -16º. A difficult task in a place where the traditional Georgian hospitality that has amazed before gets blurred by the golden promises of tourism.
But golden is indeed the history of Svaneti. We are at the end of the world of the Argonauts, the place to where they followed Jason in search for the Golden Fleece, the El Dorado of their time. We learn from the Museum of Svaneti in Mestia that this is a land where myth and reality are inseparably mixed. The accounts of Strabo, a first century Geographer, claim an anthropological explanation to the mythical fleece and tell that it comes from the use of sheep skin in filtering the waters of the mining rivers. A collection of coins bearing the face of Alexander the Great that have been found in the area (including some forged ones that look like a cubist version of the originals) show that the Svans were rich at the time and that wealth circulated from hand to hand. They provided the Colchis with its fortunes, their jewels spreading beyond their territory. And the gold that used to flow down to the valleys, comes back up now hidden in foreign credit cards.
The local population gets mixed in Mestia with nationalities and languages that are not their own and we barely have the chance to hear the distinct Svan, one of the endangered languages in the world. But at a little shop we sit for tea every morning, we chat in between sweets, chocolates and nuts with Guli and the visitors that come and go. We hear the stories of what Svaneti was like 20 years ago, life in the villages and, for the first time, accounts of those who were forced to leave Abkhazia, our next destination. People look surprised at our plan to sleep in an abandoned place, indeed is cold at this time of the year. But even in places suffering from tourism fever, we believe there is room for travels of all budgets and we walk around looking for the perfect shelter. And one more time, fortune smiles at us, as somebody calls us from inside a house that looks just as broken as the rest. “Hey! Come in! It’s cold outside!”, 3 workers from Kutaisi offer us their couch and warm up the big pot of beans for dinner.
Next morning, we set on to our own “argonautic” quest, a search for winter walks and Causcasian fresh air. We have read and heard of the wonders of trekking in Svaneti, and we head on to the tourist info center to ask for directions and advice. But the stale answer to our wonderings is simply “No”. “No hiking in winter. Too much snow”. We look perplexed, at each other and at the girl behind the counter. How can it be? We cannot believe it, but the answer remains no matter who we ask. “The tracks are covered” – says a self defined mountain guide. It looks like nobody likes to walk in winter, if they can fly up and down on their skis, and are suggested to take the ski lift up the hill for a breathtaking view of the Caucasus range. We ponder for a while and agree that the only way we would like to enjoy this view is if our breath is taken by sweating the way up. So we content ourselves with climbing here and there, walking the road to the nearby villages, not daring to venture into the winter covered trails. If the tough Svans, the mountain people, do not dare walking their paths in winter, who are we to disturb the peace of the season?
Svaneti has jumped from our laptop screens on to our travel reality, but somehow feels like a frozen postcard to us. A beautiful picture to look at from the distance, a place to pass by, but not to stay this time. “Come in spring” – we are told. So, with Mount Ushba in the background, we walk and walk, and then we hitchhike, heading down to warmer lands where travellers on a shoestring are guests and not simple nuissance.
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