Reaching the highest home

An update on the kitridestheworld blog. In these past three weeks I have fallen behind my weekly blogging schedule. This was primarily due to an interlude to my New Zealand expedition where my father joined me in the high Caucasus for two weeks of mountain walking (full article below), and also as I am now in Kazakhstan and haven't had wifi for eleven days.

During the Svaneti walk I had some time to think about the blog, about things I have been enjoying and also things I would like to change.

I will be making some adjustments to the blog format over the coming months. I find that the current format of releasing the previous weeks narrative each Wednesday is restrictive when it comes to storytelling. The release day might intersect an experience which is only partly unravelled. In these instances, the story would be better told by awaiting its conclusion before recording it. Also as access to wifi is likely to be limited through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, I may not be able to be as punctual as previously

With this in mind, I plan to experimentally loosen the structure of the blog. I still hope to produce something every week, but each post will be story based rather than a description of the recent week. If a particular experience takes one and a half weeks to conclude, I will let it run its course before writing it.

Right. With all that said, here is my write up of my hiking adventure in the Caucasus.

My father and I recently spent some time walking in Georgia’s high Caucasus.

On a gloomy February evening in London we attended a “Discover Georgia” lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. My attention was grabbed by a young woman describing the ambitious Trans Caucasian Trail. The vision is a continuous Caucasian hiking route from the Caspian to the Black Sea. In summer volunteers improve and connect existing tracks; several sections are already completed.

Our interest had been peaked and when a two week window emerged while I would be in Georgia, the newly built TCT was an exciting and obvious option for an adventure.

Our challenge would be a ten day section in the Svaneti region. Starting at the village of Chuberi, we would walk east, covering between ten and twenty kilometres each day. The Svan capital of Mestia marked the midway; the hike would conclude at the highest continually inhabited settlement in Europe, Ushguli.

Like book chapters unravelling, the Svan land crafted its own story as we moved east.

Our first days presented the formidable Utviri pass which segregates the narrow and forested Chuberi and Nakra valleys.

We walked what we suspected were Soviet-era hiking trails. The trails were not well walked, over the opening days we saw only two other hikers. Weathered paint dashes vanished into the textures of the land. On the lower western slope we were several times lost a tangle of steep and slippery logging tracks.

We spent our first night in an abandoned shepherds hut 400 meters below the pass. The wind was strong above the treeline. Clouds drew together like curtains across the crenellated towers of Mt Utrivi above us.

Bad weather closed in the following morning. In wind, rain and dense cloud visibility dropped to less than ten meters. Our final hurdle before the pass would be contouring across a steep scree slope. Every muscle was in tension, a false step would drop us 200 meters down the mountainside.

At the col we paused briefly. Stormy winds ramped up the eastern slopes. Crouched behind a waist high boulder and my pack we shovelled down some peanuts and Dad snapped a quick picture. In the rain the way markers for the route down were invisible. Using my phones GPS and compass bearings we tentatively picked our way out of the clouds to safety and the valley.

Our experience of wild Utrivi became unusual as we neared the Svan nuclei of Mestia. Moving east the valleys widened to reveal snow capped peaks and pearly glaciers at every turn. Trails were well used and the signage clear. It is clear why this postcard landscape is spearheading a Georgian tourist boom.

On our fourth day we would walk from Mazerei to Mestia over the 2954 meter Guli pass. Leaving the former, we made our way to the ruins of Guli village, at the head of a wide and un-forested sub valley. The path was flanked by two parallel rivers which had cut deep 30 foot deep clefts into the loose glacial scree. The way was heavily trodden. At one moment there were 18 hikers in sight.

The pass itself tacked upwards from Guli village. Zigzagged shepherds paths lay across the mountainside like the emaciated ribs of a giant beast.

I pushed the final steps to the top of the pass. Electric blue sky backlit a line of crenellated glaciers to the south. West, the imperious twin peaked Ushba shrouded its upper reaches in a ring of dark cloud. Behind us the gradient lulled lazily back down to the twin rivers we had threaded between earlier that day. To the east, the Svan capital of Mestia was hidden behind the curving foundations of Mt Guli.

It was a moment of equal triumph and poignancy. Triumph as it was the highest I had ever climbed and also the high point of the hike. Having experienced and accomplished this pass was a victory, even if the hike went no further. Poignant because it was a victory shared with my father. This trip was easily our most ambitious project, and our first in several years. I tried to savour that moment of perfection.

Svaneti's social story is just as striking as it's geographical story.

Throughout the hike there were indications that the practice of transhumance, the annual movement of livestock to high altitude pastures for the summer months, is receding. This ancient practice is being replaced with a reliance on the booming tourist industry.

On our first evening we arrived at Chuberi, brain and footsore from our transfer from Tbilisi to the heart of Svaneti. We staggered into the town center, to a large map beside the river which marked the official start line of the TCT section.

I asked some locals if there was a guesthouse in town. An short, older man with a ruddy face guided us down the river to a pair of houses. One large and clearly inhabited, the other under construction.

We were introduced to his son, a good looking bearded man of twenty-two with perfect English. He informed us that this wasn't actually a guesthouse but instead his family home, but that we were welcome to stay for dinner and to sleep.

Over dinner we talked about life in Chuberi. Last year he spent three months of the summer living in a hut 400 meters below Utviri pass, looking after the family cattle.

He told us he didn't enjoy the isolation which accompanies transhumance, he missed his family. The wooden cabin he lived in during the summer was a few meters squared with no electricity or running water. To pass the time he created his own language. Dad and I were able to identify his cabin by the peculiar inscriptions written on the back of the door.

This year he said he wasn't going back to the mountains. He is studying tourism in Tbilisi and the partially built house adjacent to us is the foundation for a hotel he hopes to open next year. His cabin, and many others we found in Svaneti, is uninhabited this year and has fallen into disrepair.

Young Svans are beginning to reject the isolation and discomfort of trans-humance. Capitalising on the tourism boom presents a more comfortable and profitable career.

There are suggestions that Svaneti’s industry change from agriculture to tourism is a progression more than a direct transition. Native Svans have been migrating away from Svaneti for several years now, choosing city life over the difficulties presented by being comparatively inaccessible. Only one family remains in the town of Kichkhuldashi, and at one point the village of Adishi, which lies halfway between Mestia and Ushguli, was home to only two families.

Tourism is gradually reviving these places. Ushguli now has a permanent population of 200-300 and Adishi has twelve families in permanent residence.

The progression from agriculture to tourism is in motion, but these are early days and it is far from complete. Every village presents a juxtaposition of old and new. Inhabitants who were previously dependent on farming and agriculture are now learning to accommodate two conflicting ways of life.

In Adishi at least half of the twelve families now run guesthouses. In the evening Dad and I walked through the village and were surprised when rounding a crumbling Svan tower to come face to face with a untethered two tonne bull. Not what you would find on the sun kissed cobbles of a village in the south of France.

The best example of this identity confusion is Ushguli. The village is a maelstrom of activity. Backpackers swarm like flies through the narrow cobbled streets, dodging cows, pigs and yapping dogs.

We celebrated our arrival in Ushguli in a riverside bar. To reach the Swiss style wooden cabin we were slip and sliding through animal muck and skirting around locals milking their cows in the middle of the road.

Aside from the obvious draw of the landscape, Svaneti’s oxymoronic character is perhaps part of the enchantment which attracts tourists in such great numbers each year. In our short ten day snapshot we saw a place in evolution, its population of entrepreneurs beginning of capitalise on the unique experiences that this place has offer. Tourism in Svaneti is young enough that the experience still feels legitimate and has so far escaped the cynicism and identity degradation that can accompany many touristic places.

I am not worried though. The Svan people and the Svan identity are famed in the Caucasus for being ferociously strong, and it will take more than a few pesky Europeans to change that. This is a place on the up and I cannot wait to return.