Svaneti – will the Wild Heart of the Caucasus finally be tamed?

You become responsible forever for what you have tamedThe Little Prince

 

Located in northwestern Georgia and locked in the heart of the Caucasus mountains lies the historic province of Svaneti. The only way to get there is by hitchhiking or driving from Zugdidi to Mestia, along a steep windy road looking over beautiful gorges, wild rivers and majestic mountains.

 

Svaneti - the Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads

 

 

Svaneti consists of several small villages, build on the snow-covered mountain slopes and surrounded by a breathtaking scenery of alpine meadows. Walking around in the picturesque villages, that are dominated by tower-houses, gives you the feeling that you are thrown back in time into the European Middle Ages.

 

svaneti-7

 

svaneti-5

 

Svaneti - the wild heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads

Highland warriors who practiced blood law

It’s only since the mid-2000’s that Svaneti is accessible to tourists. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, some villages were completely abandoned and the area was feared as an outlaw territory where bandits and criminal gangs took refuge. But even before that, the inhabitants – who are called the Svans and are now a subgroup of Georgians – were known as fierce highland warriors and gatekeepers of the mountain passes. No ruler was able to tame this remote area. The Svans were tough survivors who were able to withstand long harsh winter, defend themselves against the invasions of other Caucasian tribes and who practiced murderous blood-feuds. They’re not really the kind people you want to have a fight with!

 

Svan people - Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus
© Vittorio Sella, 1889

 

Because of their geographical isolation the Svans have their own unwritten language called Svan and most of their cultural traditions are still preserved. Nowadays they might only show their fierce nature if you would refuse their hospitality with the typical Georgian tradition of offering you a glass of home-made wine or chacha (a very strong spirit drink) and a large meal of the provincial cuisine (bread, cheese, stewed beef and more cheese).

 

Svan People - Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus
© grandhotelushba

 

 

Tower-houses

Every household in Svaneti is a fortress. The villages were too scattered to be encircled with a protective wall so each individual house built a stone tower – called koshki – that offered protection to the family and their livestock during attacks and blood-feuds and it also served as a shelter for the most valuable possessions of every family.

 

Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads

 

 

Nowadays most families are moving into a more comfortable home and some towers are open for tourists to visit. One of the locals that we spoke with, joked that the towers are now only used to spy on the neighbors.

 

Don’t drunk-walk on those ladders!

Stone Towers, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads

 

 

From seclusion to tourist magnet

For a long time the villages stayed preserved from today’s fast changing world. The people were self-sufficient and lived in harmony with nature. The only sign of the modern world are the electricity wires hanging loosely between the houses. Some of the villages, like Ushguli – which is by the way one of the highest and most remote villages of Europe (2200m above sea level)- are completely closed off from the rest of the world during the long and harsh winters. It would be very interesting to experience how people live there during those cold months. The Svans probably spend the entire summer preparing for the winter.

 

Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
The electricity wires – the only sign of the modern world

 

Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Love this old-school toilet! Although, might be pretty cold on the butt in winter…

 

Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Could you live this secluded?

 

The medieval and remote times of Svaneti are now slowly coming to an end. Svaneti has seen more changes in the past few years than in a whole millennium. Although the elders are still living a traditional existence – which is visible in Ushguli where inhabitants mainly gallop on horseback through the streets – more and more young people are migrating to the big cities of Georgia in search of jobs.

 

Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Street view of Ushguli

 

Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Don’t forget about the big but uber-friendly dogs who want to be your personal guide in Ushguli!

 

Vans and cars full of foreign backpackers are now taking over the region. The rough and bumpy roads that links the villages of Svaneti will soon be paved, even all the way to Ushguli. New constructions that serve as guest houses and hyper-modern government buildings are popping up like weeds, especially in Mestia. There is now even an airport terminal that offers daily flights from and to Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. Svaneti is becoming a popular attraction for hikes and trekking. It’s quite ironic that the stone towers which were used to keep outsiders at a distance are now attracting tourists from all over the world. We already noticed that, even outside the summer season, the streets of Mestia were more inhabited by tourists than locals.

 

Mestia, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Alright, it wasn’t that busy when we were there but you get the point…

 

Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Slowly on buildings and construction sites are taking over …

 

These changes are unsettling. What will happen to the villages and land of the Svans? Will they be able to preserve their authentic traditions or will they become a touristic show of the voyeuristic modern world? Some Svans are optimistic, hoping it will give them more jobs and opportunities so the young people won’t flee the poverty by moving to the cities.

We can only hope that Svaneti will keep its fierce authenticity and that the tourism won’t be able to tame its wild heart !

 

Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads

 

Do you want to see more of this intriguing area? Watch the video here and experience the beauty of Svaneti.

 

 

Have you ever visited an authentic place that is now turning into a tourist attraction?  Do you think it has positive consequences for the locals or do you think it will destroy their authenticity? What are your thoughts about this?

 

Svaneti, will the wild heart of the Caucasus finally be tamed? Journal of Nomads

Follow Cynthia - Journal of Nomads:

Writer, photographer and co-founder at Journal of Nomads

I have Belgian roots but the world has been my home for the past 7 years. I'm an artist at heart and often get lost in my thoughts. I like to create some-thing out of no-thing and once I feel inspired, I'm unstoppable. I love telling stories and taking photos, showing the beauty and extraordinary of the world around me. Oh, and I love making the impossible elegantly probable. Once you realize that you're a creator and the world is your playfield, there's no limit to what can be done!

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CynthiaJoanKatie FeatherstoneSandy & VyjayJulianna Barnaby Recent comment authors
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Joan

Nice write up! It is a gorgeous region but seriously, like you say, it is a real tourist trap. Some of the villages between Ushguly and Mestia have now terrace-bars with super loud music and sooooo many backpackers, like there was no place to sit. It was a lot of fun to get tipsy in the mountains but this is not what people come for when y0u visit a traditional village. In our guest house, there were more than 12 guests and most guest houses were actually full. The owners didn’t really care about the guests but just the money…… Read more »

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[…] (even the cops are super helpful towards hitchhikers), many spectacular and unique places ( Svaneti, Vardzia and Chiatura are just a few examples), interesting stories and legends and a beautiful […]

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[…] Svaneti consists of several small villages, built on the snow-covered mountains slopes and surrounded by a breathtaking scenery of alpine meadows. Walking around in these picturesque villages that are dominated by tower-houses, gives you the feeling that you’re thrown back into the European Middle Ages. Read more about the Wild Heart of the Caucaus. […]

Katie Featherstone
Katie Featherstone

…when I say bump, I don’t mean literally

Journal of Nomads

Hahaha!!!

Katie Featherstone
Katie Featherstone

Beautiful photos Cynthia. Hopefully we’ll bump into you on the road somewhere and you can have a lift in Burt!

Journal of Nomads

Thank you Katie! It would be great to get a ride with you! 🙂

Sandy & Vyjay
Sandy & Vyjay

Sounds like you had super fun there. Love the beautiful landscapes out there. We always love mountains especially the fresh air with nature all round makes it worthwhile.

Journal of Nomads

The nature in this region is very pristine. If you love mountains, you will love hiking in the Caucasus!!!

Julianna Barnaby
Julianna Barnaby

Wow – what a place! The landscapes are incredible.It’s a tough one because your post has made me want to go but as you said, you don’t want to contribute to the ruination of a place. Hopefully they will be able to keep a balance as the tourist industry develops there.

Journal of Nomads

It’s definitely worthwhile to visit Svaneti! We also really hope that they can find a balance. Economically it would do the region and the country well but we hope they can keep their authenticity in the midst of it all!

Tatum Skipper
Tatum Skipper

Love this. The landscapes are insane…with the snow capped mountains and unbelievable weather it looks like! I love how you added those huge friendly dogs. Nice to see a place where they aren’t emaciated and covered in dirt!

Journal of Nomads

Thanks Tatum! Most dogs live in the streets but the people feed them and look after them. It’s indeed really nice to see that! The landscapes really took our breath away. If you love mountains and nature, you would love Svaneti (and Georgia)!

Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com
Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

Very interesting post – I didn’t know about the bad-ass Svans and their history. I would definitely consider visiting this untamed region but, hopefully, the remaining residents will find a balance between keeping their traditions alive while adapting to more modern conveniences (such as tourism). The scenery is beautiful!

Journal of Nomads

Thank you Lydia. We also hope they will find a balance. The tourism would do their financial situation well but we really hope the area will keep it’s authenticity!

TravelwithBIRD
TravelwithBIRD

I must admit that caucasus so far has not really been a place for us to seriously think about to travel to, but your post somehow really changed that.
Your pics are absolutely great and give somehow a very good understanding of these places and I like the raw peacefulness in them. What really fascinates me here is the pureness of the place, something untouched. We had something similar in Iceland, even though its already super touristic. But this here seems to be very different, very special. Thank you for this inspiration, glad to have stumbled upon this. Cheers Hendrik

Journal of Nomads

Thank you so much for your kind words Hendrik!
This is a very special place indeed, there is something really special about the energy here. We hope that the tourism won’t spoil it, that Svaneti can keep its unique identity. We’ve never been to Iceland but we would love to go there one day! Can you see the effects of tourism there? I would definitely recommend a visit to the Caucasus, there are still many areas in this mountain range that we haven’t discovered yet. I hope you’ll come this way one day, you won’t be disappointed!

pm explore
pm explore

Love how you are exploring places where languages were only spoken and not written. I feel like in places like these. History might never be know other than for what remains. Thanks for documenting and expressing what you saw in a language understood by many! Nice work on your Youtube channel!

Journal of Nomads

Thank you!!
We love exploring and discovering areas like this. We hope that Svans will and can keep their unique language and culture. Their history is very fascinating, so different from any other place.

bc21578
bc21578

It’s great that you included so many pics. The wild wild west of Georgia. That’s a very interesting looking toilet!

Journal of Nomads

It was a very interesting toilet to use as well 😉

norman

what an amazing article, amazing pictures and, above all an amazing story. The caucasus is so high on my list really. They are offering very cheap flights to Georgia at the moment and it’s been itching in my fingers since a year. but your pictures wow…i so wanna go!

Journal of Nomads

Hi Norman,
Thank you for your kind words! It’s a pleasure to inspire you to go and visit Georgia. It’s a real beautiful and interesting country. Svaneti is just a little part of this, there are so many stunning areas to discover and if you’re a wine-lover, you’ll definitely have a blast here 🙂 When would you like to travel to Georgia?

norman

I dunno. I don’t seem to find the time to do anything. Probbaly next autumn.