Two years ago, when I first went to “the horrible” Svaneti, I still had a notion about this region as a crime’s nest. Though things were getting better then (before 2005 or something hardly any tourist or mountaineer wasn’t robbed there), the word “Svaneti” itself would make you feel strained. However the first “cultural shock” about modern-days Svaneti was when on the first morning in Mestia, the major town in the region, I saw some European-looking guy in the short-pants doing his morning jogging. Remembering the half-legendary story about a young Polish couple, who travelled in Svaneti in mid-90s and who were robbed and then BOTH raped, at that moment I thought that eventually this once law-free region surrendered to temptation of tourists’ money.
This year, when I went to hike through Svaneti and Racha with my friends, I saw the results of this “lost battle.” All over Svaneti Svans have developed the taste to the tourists’ money. In Ushguli, reportedly the highest village in Europe, the guesthouse prices are as high as up to $35-40. For the comparison, in many other Svan villages the prices are $20-25. That’s understandable, because Ushguli is on the main tourist route. And that’s normal too – better tourism flourish in the region than crime.
But on the other hand such intensive introduction of civilization, especially not the best part of it (sorry, I personally dislike conventional tourists, since I treat them as I-pay-hence-where-is-my-service-and-heck-with-you people) may affect the identity of Svans with all their customs and traditions. Of course I understand that without tourism this identity can vanish anyways, and the people of the region need to make their living, but the way we change any society needs special consideration, including some anthropological studies. Myself I don’t know now how it should be, I just have a feeling that some important things might get lost forever, and mainly because of our ignorance.
As for the hiking trip it was just awesome. A dry description of the route thread would be Mestia-Adishi-Ushguli-Zeskho-Ghebi, which roughly is Upper Svaneti-Lower Svaneti-Racha. The route turned out to be one of the most diverse by beautiful places and intensive hiking. Don’t want spend too much time describing places, will just post pictures of them. Just will mention that Svaneti is strikingly beautiful by its mountains on the first/second day, but then it becomes rather boring, at least from the conventional tourist path we took. It just looks as a cute post card.
On the other hand Lower Svaneti (Zeskho) and Racha are much more diverse, and therefore more interesting, by the beautiful ridges and mountain lakes. However Racha is more desolated region. In the Soviet time there were a lot of geologists, mountaineers and farmers beat a paths there. Now many old horse paths have been overgrown with man-tall grass and flowers.
A penny to my Soviet symbols project. Khalde, Svaneti. 2010
In short Svaneti vs. Racha list (my version) would look like this:
Sometimes, even as a journalist, it’s good to visit a region not for human stories, but just to hike there for some time to get an aesthetic perception of the place.