One Glorious Day in Svaneti

The day after we hiked to the glacier we decided to embark upon a “more difficult” hike to the TV Station.  The TV Station is not actually on top of any mountains, but a TV tower (far less glorious than Tbilisi’s) on a peak has a swell view of the surrounding valleys, including Mestia.  The reason I put “more difficult” in quotation marks is because we had been told the glacial hike would take about six hours, round trip.  In reality it took us probably nine and was much longer than we anticipated.  Since we’d had our butts kicked on the easy hike, we were a little wary of the longer hike and hired a guide.

Since it had rained during the night we decided to take a steeper hike, not to a TV Tower, but to a Cross. This route would have far less mud, our guide told us. Here you can see us embarking on our journey and passing some of the famous towers of Mestia on our way up.

As we passed through some farmland just above the town, I turned back to admire the already-amazing views.

This is like fifteen minutes into hiking.

The first part of the path was really quite steep.  We climbed past fields of wheat and several pastures before reaching the scrubby foothills of the small mountain.  There it got even steeper and rockier.  Our guide continually told us, “Don’t worry, just this last bit then it gets easy.”  He is clearly in better shape than most of us because his conception of “easy” didn’t neatly match all of ours’!  Nonetheless, we all managed fairly well by taking resting frequently, right Pauli?

Pauli is an awesome hiker--he has great boots. But wait, what's that coming through the bushes in the background?
Our driver had apparently come along for the hike!

Now let me take this opportunity to talk about Zurabi a little.  I believe I’ve already mentioned him a few times (stopping for tcha tcha and a hammock, drunkenly picking us up, etc.) but until this particular day I had no idea just how awesome he was.  While we were hiking through the farm I looked back and saw Zurabi (or Z as we call him) huffing and puffing his way up the hill.  He’s going to turn fifty one on January 1st but he looks ten years older.  The whole time in Mestia he was visiting his buddy and drinking tcha tcha at all hours of the day or night.  We had initially planned on driving to the beginning of the TV Tower trail, but then changed our minds, and opted out of taking the Marshrutka.  That didn’t mean, however, that we opted out of taking the marshrutka driver!

Z was a real champion.  And a ham.  He always wanted photos taken of him as Pauli noted very well in his blog.  He carried with him an umbrella and an axe and we all laughed at him.  When questioned about the axe, he responded “For bears” and made a chopping motion against his neck.  Basically if we ran into a bear, Z planned on taking it down with his axe (and then tenderizing the meat with the mallet on the other end?).

Z really liked Stephanie. For this one he said, "Tbilisi! Take my picture with Stepan! It will be very beautiful!"

Another side note: Except for Yev and Stephanie (Zhenya and Stepan, respectively) he called us by our town names.  Chokhatauri, Batumi, Tbilisi, Martvili, etc.  It was kind of like Zombieland!

As we hiked higher and higher, we saw more and more wildlife.  First Yev startled a cow by taking a flash photo of it and causing it to attempt to take it’s own life by leaving the path and heading off a cliff.  True story.  Then we saw the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping full speed towards the summit!  (Apocryphal Story. –Did you catch that wordplay?)

They were cruising along. It looked like a really awesome way to spend a leisurely Saturday morning in Mestia!
A very biblical-looking Maxi is about to do something terrible to a cow :(.

Not long after, we arrived at the top of the mountain.  We passed through a mushroom patch, where Murabi, our guide, picked a mushroom for himself.  The final climb of the trek was a bit steep and tricky, but when we got to the top the views were well worth it!

The view from the top was stunning in all directions.
The town of Mestia lay sprawled below us along the river. We could see our hotel and Z's marshrutka from here! The marshrutka is bright red. See if you can find it!
This peak that is breaking through the clouds may be in Russia. I do not recall which ones were, but our guide told us that many of the peaks we could see were actually in Russia. It was so, so cool!

We had a picnic at the top of the mountain that consisted of Sausages, Lavash, and Cheese (For the grammatically picky amongst you, no, the mountain did not consist of sausages, etc. the picnic did).  Some of us took naps (Cristen) and Pauli, Ian, Stephanie, and Nicole hiked one peak higher to find better views.  Ian certainly did!  While we napped, hiked, and chatted about a wide range of inappropriate things (which greatly amused Murabi), Zurabi picked bags and bags worth of berries from the bushes on top of the mountain.  He also called his friend in Mestia and tried to wave down from the base of the cross.  I have no idea if his friend saw him–but it was hilarious at any rate!

"Yeah...I think you definitely could kill a bear with this...."

On the hike down we ran into the under-appreciated, diminutive horseman of the apocalypse, who was late to the show.  He was galloping up a steep path and dismounted when he reached us.  The kid looked like he was about twelve or thirteen years old (maybe younger) and he was riding bareback with no proper bridle: just a rope tied around the pony’s lower jaw.

Q: What is Georgians' favorite ballet? A: Svan Lake! BAM!

When we finally neared the bottom of the mountain many of us were exhausted and in need of a toilet/shower.  But first, a detour!

We hiked down from the top of that mountain in the background. My apologies to Marissa, but in this photo she is the postergirl for "Tired and in need of a toilet/shower"!

Now, for those of you who are scared of reading great amounts in one sitting, maybe it would be a good idea to take a break right now.  Go make some tea or do some sit-ups.  This is a pretty natural breaking point in the story and under normal circumstances I would separate this into several posts.  Based on the sheer awesomeness of this past weekend (Triple Dragon, Go!) I have a strong desire to finish off my Svaneti posts in one go.  Get ready!

In Svaneti, every house has a tower-complex attached to it.  The traditional ones anyway.  We expressed interest in climbing one, so our tourguide offered to take us up one on the way back down the mountain.  He explained to us the history and uses of the towers in some moderate detail, which I will try to relate here.

You can see the towers dotting the Mestian skyline. Once we had climbed the tower we could pop through the hatch on the roof and look all around. It was great!

Svaneti was frequently raided by nomadic warriors from the North and the South.  In the north, along the current Russo-Georgian border is the Russian province of Kalbardino-Balkaria, a Muslim-majority province in the North Caucasus.  To the South of Svaneti are the Georgians, of course, and then countless other nomadic tribes and Middle Eastern Empires like Mongols, Turks, and Persians.

The Svan form of self defense (besides wearing felt caps so that you can just throw on your battle helmet at the drop of a hat [pun intended?]) was to have a tower attached to your house.  If and when an invader came to Svaneti the locals could retreat into their towers and remain there for months at a time.

You can see the chain of towers along the hillside in the distance. As much as I wouldn't want to chill in a tower for months at a time (Hey there, Rapunzel) it does seem pretty strong!
You don't wanna be having to attack this baby. Especially because:

While the Svans are trapped in their towers they can easily hurl things down at there attackers.  The top level has overhangs from which you can drop all manner of unpleasant things on your enemies heads–hot oil, rocks, poop, you know, the standard.

It's a long way down from here. Now imagine dropping poop on people.

Our guide told us all of this and even entertained our daft questions about towers with grace and patience.  He was a really good guy.  He brought us to a tower so that we could climb to the top and see what it was like inside.  Some of the above photos already might give you a sense of what a Tower is like, but let me tell you in a bit greater detail.

We entered an “Aliceinwonderland Door” to the first level of the tower and climbed a ladder up.  There are about five or six floors in the tower, each one better lit than the preceding.  About halfway up the tower, Murabi told us that the next floor was really unstable and could only support two people at a time.  We went up in pairs and shouted down once we’d cleared the floor, letting the next pair know it was safe to climb higher.

Ian was quite nervous at the idea of floors collapsing on us, so he hid under the ladder. Also, I'm going to include a couple of solid ass-shots now. Don't be angry. Be flattered.

The ceiling was clearly bending from age/strain and it didn’t seem unreasonable that it could collapse, what with dust and bits falling down when people walked across above.  The ladders were also very steep, which made climbing up them kind of tricky, and climbing down them downright terrifying.

When we got to the top we sat for a good while looking out the windows and hanging out, taking turns poking our heads out of the roofhole.  It was really a cool place to be.  Through a window we could see a bunch of construction workers building a house.  One of them started stretching/dancing, hilariously.  We all watched him for a moment, when Murabi said, “I know that guy!”  He poked his head out the roofhole and shouted to him that we were all loving his dance moves.  (Note: Murabi shouted in Georgian, I don’t actually have any idea what he said.)

Max thought I was taking his picture. Haha, Max. I was taking a picture out the window!
Murabi and Yev chillin' in the tower. Once again, I have successfully captured the natural beauty of Yev in a candid moment.

After climbing down,

Bonus points for naming that ass!

we grabbed our bags from the ground, including the plastic bag full of apples gifted to us by an old woman on a farm, and headed back towards town.  We stopped off briefly at the hotel and dropped off some things/people.  A group of us were interested in seeing the town’s museum, which has really, really old things in it.  We’re talking tens of thousands of years old.  Or so says the guidebook.  The guidebook also says that the museum closes at 5.  Our guide told us six.  We trusted the living, breathing Svan before us.

I really like the Svan towers!

He guided us to the museum and bade us farewell.  We had rather enjoyed his company and were sorry to see him leave.  When we arrived at the museum, however, we found we’d been tricked!  It does close at five!  Nuts!

We trudged back through the mud, thinking about what to cook for dinner, and how.  Stephanie decided she would cook some Spanish-style macaroni, provided the markets were still open at this late hour.  As we walked through a narrow alley way we heard a voice, “What are you doing?”

We looked up and saw Murabi standing looking over a wall down at us quizzically.  We told him the museum was closed and he was extremely apologetic.  “Come in!  I will give you some of my father’s tcha tcha!”  Not being the types to refuse Georgian hospitality, we went right on in!

Nana, I know you’re worried that I drink too much, but I promise you I don’t.  There is such a different alcohol culture over in this part of the world.  Oftentimes, people make their own wine or tcha tcha and would be horribly offended if you refused a drink as their guest.  Such was the case in Svaneti when Murabi offered us his father’s tcha tcha.  It turned out to be really good (I usually hate tcha tcha) and he said, “Now that we’ve opened the bottle we have to finish it all!”

This is a pretty good picture, but one element of it is bringing it down....
That's better!

This is, of course, on top of all the yogurt, bread, and cheese that he had already given us.  We were just sitting in his yard, between the house and the annex.  There were fruit trees all around us and animals coming and going.  Someone kept trying to join us for tcha tcha:

Who's that coming around the corner?
It's the cow named Cow! Silly Cow, Tcha tcha isn't for cows!

Murabi wanted to make several toasts with us–he really opened up to us and we liked him a lot!  We met his brothers and nephew and both parents.  He let the girls sit out from toasting after the first–having so much contact with foreigners has trained him to realize that not everyone can just pound down the tcha tcha and few people appreciate being forced to.

We all listened attentively to Murabi's well-crafted toasts.
Murabi, our guide and toastmaster.

We also got to meet Murabi’s dog Rocky, named after the film hero, of course.  Rocky is a Georgian shepherd.  If you’ve never seen a Georgian shepherd, just picture a large bear crossed with a lion.  They’re terrifying.  Rocky, and several others that we saw, had no ears and we asked Murabi why.  He told us that when Rocky was a puppy his family cut of his ears so that Rocky could be a fighting dog.  Ears are a liability in a fight (and in life, let’s be honest) because the enemy can grab on to them or tear them off.  No one wants that, so a little pre-emptive ripping off of the ears is usually warranted.  Incidentally, Rocky is “a terrible fighter.”

Even if he's not a good fighter, Rocky rocks. He can open the garden gate all by himself. Pushing AND Pulling!

We finished the bottle with Murabi in his yard and headed back to the hotel.  We had really enjoyed our guide’s company so, naturally, we invited him over for dinner!

Pauli was the night's champion. We invited Murabi to join us for dinner and he brought with him another bottle of tcha tcha. While most of us toasted a few more times then politely demurred, Pauli took every shot like a champ. This, of course, led to Pauli later proclaiming, "I am feeling totally destroyed!"

I am running out of steam here, at 2600 words, it’s no wonder!  I just want to end this post with an apology to Yev and a peace offering.  Yev, I am sorry that every photo of you on my camera is horrendous.  Also, I am sorry that I actively chose the worst of the bunch because they’re hilarious.  As a peace offering, I give you this photo of Ian that proves my camera can take terrible photos of any one.  Prepare to have your blood curdled:

Pauli is looking peachy in the background though!

Farewell, Svaneti!

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6 thoughts on “One Glorious Day in Svaneti

  1. Smee again. Bonus points for Pauli. It’s actually my ass.
    By the way: Yesterday I found a 24/7 store selling chacha like Vodka. 40% only, though.

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