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Svitlana Ilchenko

Svitlana Ilchenko: People and Towers of Upper Svaneti

Svitlana Ilchenko, whose story from her travels to the East of Europe – the Caucasus – took the second place in our “Holiday with Eastbook” contest, presents “a purposely subjective perspective of one of the most exciting and mysterious places in Georgia – Upper Svaneti – along with some impressions of meeting Svans – people inhabit this region for thousand years”. Enjoy!

The view of one part of Ushguli – Murkmeli (from Chazhashi ); author: Svitlana Ilchenko, source: Eastbook.eu

High hopes, high mountains

One of the most impressive views of Shkhara, the highest peak in Georgia (5068 m), is visible from Ushguli, the highest settlement in Europe inhabited by people (between 2060 and 2200 m above sea level) located in Upper Svaneti, the most impenetrable region of the whole country. It was completely separated from the rest of the world before the construction of a road linking it to the small town, Mestia, but even nowadays it remains pretty isolated. One can find here stories about blood feuds, eight months of snow per year and medieval towers – those have become the symbols of this corner, although they are specific not only for the Georgian Caucasus but also its Russian part. Anyway, in this unique village, about thirty Svan towers have been preserved.

In fact, Ushguli is not a village – it’s rather a whole community consisting of four settlements, and their names sound magical: Murqmeli, Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi. Still, they are commonly known among the tourists as Ushguli, as under this name they have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Some travellers come here for a one-day trip to see the Shkhara’s glacier or for more serious climbing. Others prefer to take a glance at Svan towers or to get acquainted with Svans – people of this South Caucasusian province.

A typical house with a tower in Mestia, the only town in Upper Svaneti; a lot of guesthouses are located in such an impressive buildings; author: Svitlana Ilchenko, source: Eastbook.eu

Hosts and guests

Svans use their own language, which belongs to the Kartvelian family – together with Georgian and Mingrelian. Georgian flatland dwellers say: “We are able to understand Mingrels, but it’s impossible with Svans”. Sneering, they point out to the highlanders’ wilderness: “Those who had blood feuds are Svans.” At a dinner in a village Iprari (suluguni cheese, homemade bread, vegetables, grape vodka ‘chacha’), the housekeeper tells me: “Here, in Svaneti, a guest is a God sent! One brother could kill his sibling in favor of a guest!” It was the first sign of another side of Georgian hospitality, not as kind and amiable as before, but still cordial. Next morning he accompanies us towards the wicket door saying: “It costs 70 lari (currency in Georgia) in Ushguli to stay overnight… are you going to pay? At least 40…” Not ready for such a token of hospitality, we agree on 20 lari.  Our host seemingly takes offence but let us go in peace.

“Prices and mountains are the highest in Ushguli,” – locals ironically excuse themselves. It seems tourist presence somehow harmed the region. These mountains turned out to be not yet ready for their invasion, and so did people’s minds. Here one can feel indifference like nowhere in Georgia. Nobody cares about you here, nobody invites you to have a rest on a bench in a shadow or to drink some water. We were surprised not hearing the usual shouting: “Are you from Ukraine?! Brother! I’ve been to Kiev dozens of times!” That’s a normal situation for resorts and touristic places all over the world. After a few days in Georgia you inevitably get used to the fact that everyone cares about your destiny and this mountainous coldness hurts you so much! The price of transport, if you want to cross the mountain pass, is 200 lari. “It’s half of a salary,” – I rebel. “No, that’s a whole salary,” – corrects me my interlocutor.

In the foreground – two parts of the Ushguli village, Chvibiani and Zhibiani; in the distance – the mountain range with Shkhara , the highest peak in Georgia (5068 m); author: Svitlana Ilchenko, source: Eastbook.eu

Two parallel, visibly different worlds exist here: the one of international tourists and that inhabited by locals. Only money unites them and beyond that they do not cross their paths. It was visible during celebrations of the annual hay harvest festival, which took place on Sunday, 5th August. For the event all Ushguli citizens collect money to buy beef or meat of a wether – it is important: the animal must be a stag. A special type of barbeque is cooked – shashlik. The festival usually takes place near a small medieval church. Strangers with backpacks walk around looking upon the ethnographic peculiarities, but they don’t approach too close. Svans are not inclined to invite outsiders. Probably that is a way to protect their life style. The visitors are not guests here and the barrier dividing people is almost physical. While a guest for highlanders is a God’s “agent”, a tourist is just a purse. If you find yourself outside during a rainy night, more probably you will be invited inside, however not to someone’s home but to a guesthouse. Almost the same thing, actually, but here you must pay.

Towers

Nevertheless, most foreigners come to Svaneti not to meet local people but for mountains and towers. Here one can find a fair number of both, so visitors should not be disappointed.

“This tower is mine,” – says Eduard Konstantinovich, showing a single tower above the river gorge. A day before he was sitting almost motionless near the courtyard, paring a wooden stick. He had an appearance of a person who had only one entertainment for many years: observing passing vehicles. Surprisingly, the following morning he reincarnated in a jeep as a masterful driver who took us to Ushguli. Here, in mountains it is possible to cover only 20 kilometers in an hour – unpaved road goes between stone falls and deep gorges.

“This tower is mine,” – says Eduard Konstantinovich showing single tower above the river gorge; author: Svitlana Ilchenko, source: Eastbook.eu

This single tower on the outskirts of the Iprary village could belong to his family; I had no doubts at that moment. Later, I have found the photo of the same tower with the title “Love tower” and a few legends connected with it on the Internet, so I have been reminded of one distinct feature of a Georgian character – the addiction to exaggerate. Sometimes a Georgian likes, just to entertain you, to turn your attention to the richest house in a village and, quite naturally, drop in a conversation: “I’ve built that”.

But neither Eduard Konstantinovich, nor any other person in Svaneti, was able – or was in a good enough mood – to tell us about living conditions and housekeeping of the towers. At present, they do not have a housing function and the discussion concerning the real purpose of the towers is still open. Opinions differ: the towers served as a permanent house in the past, or they were used for military purposes only, or it was a shelter in a case of blood revenge. “How it was – to live in the towers?” The question seems idle to a driver. “There were three floors,” – he answers heedlessly and changes the topic. It seems easy for Svans: two floors, cattle on the ground floor, forage – on the first, family – on the second. It was in the past. Now these are just stone towers, mostly empty, and some people keep potatoes or haulm there. Do we really need to talk about them?

The museum of Ushguli – the rightward tower with the grating; the museum is closed until you ask to get inside; author: Svitlana Ilchenko, source: Eastbook.eu

It is possible to find out more about towers in the ethnographic museum in Ushguli. The museum is inside one of these buildings and you can feel assured that indeed there are two floors plus a third ground floor, rapid wooden stairs, small narrow windows…but nothing more will be told you without additional payment. Valuable churchware, sacred images, medieval metal crosses – these relics were kept during the past hard times and are now exhibited here.

Surely, the museum cannot provide the true image of the life in Svaneti. That’s why the best decision would be to walk around a village and these old towers, where grass is growing from chinks, trying to imagine the local way of life before the tourist invasion. Go up the hill topped by a medieval chapel, which you can enter only if bent over – the portal is only one meter high. The entrance is overgrown by tall nettle, so it is impossible to pass through without felling its sharp touch – as if for purification of thoughts.

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MA student in Culturology (History and Theory of Culture). Has changed several universities and cities. Currently lives in Kyiv. Fascinated by cities and people in cities. Tries to write about that sometimes on Eastbook and personal travel blog. Speaks Ukrainian, Russian, English and Polish.

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