It was raining hard the morning after Easter when I sat down at a dingy cafÃ© in Zugdidi, a town on Georgia’s border with Abkhazia, and waited with trepidation to meet my guide. A tour operator in the capital Tbilisi had arranged the rendezvous and I knew nothing about the guide except that he was a Svan – an important detail, I was told, since travelers to the remote Svaneti range of the Caucasus Mountains were warned not to go the road alone. Governed by their own language and customs, ancient honor codes and fierce loyalties to clan, the Svans were seen by many Georgians as a lawless people best known for kidnappings, road robberies and murders. The region had been ravaged in Georgia’s 1992-93 war with breakaway Abkhazia. In 2004 the President of Georgia, Michali Saakashvili, proclaimed “the Al Capone era in Georgia” over after he sent in 10 helicopters and a 200-man swat team to wipe out one of Svaneti’s leading mafia families. Tourism, which had virtually died, was clawing its way back when I visited a few years later.
I stared at the mould clinging to the damp blue walls of the cafÃ© as old men in tattered coats and snap-bill caps sat at tables drinking vodka and watching rainwater flood Zugdidi’s pot-holed streets. Then, as I fantasized about making a last-minute dash back to Tbilisi, a young man’s unshaven face appeared above me and I felt his hand shake confidently in mine. He introduced himself as David Jorjoliani, my tour guide. Moments later I found myself squeezed in back of a rusted military van and we were whisked away through a green misty valley toward the snow. Our gaunt, chain-smoking driver swerved expertly through mud channels and crater-like ruts as the van climbed, creeping ever so slowly around foggy cliff edges, past waterfalls, clutching to the sides of hills that were growing steeper as the valleys widened. After some hours, white craggy peaks towered into view as the 26-year-old David – a typically handsome Georgian, with swarthy brow, square chin and thin dark eyes – described his challenge of balancing university studies in Tbilisi with the seasonal trekking, fishing and hunting trips he led in the Svaneti. “And what about bandits up here?” I finally forced myself to ask. David laughed. “Bandits?” he said. “There are no bandits. Not any longer.”
We reached the town of Mestia, Svaneti’s administrative capital, at the foot of a sharp valley where several mountains converged. There, amid clusters of medieval stone towers and a scattering of cows, pigs and half-drunk men in military fatigues roaming the mud streets, we entered the Jorjoliani guesthouse. David’s mother, a hefty woman in a colored kerchief who was prone to frequent laughter, welcomed us with steaming plates ofÂ kubdari (minced pies) andÂ khinkali (dumplings), the staples of the region. Snow began to fall as I visited Mestia’s Museum of History and Ethnography, a massive, poorly-lit cement complex displaying tools, swords, brassware, icons, photographs and ancient texts of the Svan culture. And later, David led me to the home of a woodcarver who showed off a square, throne-like seat he had spent one month building. Enlivened by our company, the man drew out a bottle of home-brewed vodka made from bread and we forced down a series of toasts: “To our families!” “To our friendship!” “To our nations!” “To peace!”
The snow kept up for two days, plunging Mestia’s impregnable stone towers into a heavy fog so hiking in the mountains was postponed. Instead, I sat and read by the Jorjoliani stove, using my pidgen Russian to communicate with David’s family. Mournful mountain hymns bellowed from a transistor radio in the yard as I watched David’s wiry father, Valiko, slaughter three pigs one morning for his daughter’s upcoming wedding. A raucous procession of uncles and cousins marched through, settling for a time in the living room where they ate, drank, and talked. Georgians had warned me about visiting the mysterious and so-called hostile people of Svaneti, but what I experienced at the Jorjoliani’s was a joyous, traditional way of life I suspect few travelers – and not many Georgians either – get a chance to see.
On the third morning I awoke to cloudless sky and a sparkling vista of snow-capped peaks. David’s mother filled our knapsack withÂ kachapuri (cheese pies) and water sweetened with honey, and we set out to climb Mt. Lacho opposite the town. It took two hours, some of it spent hiking through knee-deep snow, before we pushed up through dense forest and the full Svaneti range of the High Caucasus came into view. At a tall wooden cross planted on the mountain’s crest, I gazed across a stunning landscape: the sharp spines of Mt. Laila rising to the south, horned Mt. Ushba to the north and the spectacular, pyramid-shaped dome of Mt. Tetnulde to the east, each of them about 4,500 meters (14,760 feet) in height. Sixty miles away, only slightly out of view in neighboring Russia, stood Mt. Elbros at 5,642 meters (18,510 feet), the tallest peak in Europe. Eagles circled overhead as David and I sat down in the snow and ate our lunch. The sun scalded our faces. The ridges of the Caucasus gleamed white and mythic in the distance. It was a view across the Earth as I had never seen it – and a reminder that, sometimes, the most forbidding places can also be the most rewarding.