Georgia's mountain wilderness opens up to the world

High in the Caucasus Mountains, a wild landscape of glacier-capped peaks, forested valleys and villages huddled around medieval stone towers has been locked away for centuries.

But Georgia's Upper Svaneti region - one of the highest and most remote settlements in Europe - is finally opening up to the outside world.

Home to only 14,000 people, Upper Svaneti is a relic of Georgia's ancient culture, a living museum where the locals speak a language that broke off from Georgian 3,000 years ago.

Getting to the regional capital Mestia, a village of 2,500 located 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) above sea level, currently involves a harrowing half-day drive along a rough road that winds around steep cliffs.

Now, in a bid to attract tourists and develop the region's economy, Georgia's government has launched a major programme to improve transport links to Svaneti, spending millions of dollars (euros) to refurbish roads and this summer announcing plans for a new airport in Mestia.

By the end of the year, Mestia governor Gocha Chelidze said, getting to Svaneti will involve nothing more than a short flight or smooth drive up the mountain.

"I've been around the world and I have never seen a place like Svaneti," Chelidze said. "It is a unique place, with beautiful nature and a rich heritage. We want the rest of the world to be able to see this."

Less than 40 years ago, there was not even the bumpy road leading to Upper Svaneti - only mountain trails that were often closed in the winter.

The region was so isolated that cultural and religious treasures were brought here for safekeeping during the many invasions Georgia has suffered over the centuries.

Some of those treasures, including a thick leather-bound Bible dating from 897, remain in the local museum.

Svaneti's isolation bred a defiant mountain culture and throughout its history the region often enjoyed semi-independent status.

It was also riven by internal feuding, which sparked the building of its trademark defensive stone towers, some of which date from as early as the ninth century. More than 250 of the towers remain and the region has been designated a UN World Heritage Site.

During the chaos in Georgia that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Svaneti became a haven for criminals, rife with banditry and kidnappings.

After coming to power in 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent government forces to the region and reasserted Tbilisi's control.

The government is spending 70 million Georgian lari (38 million dollars/30 million euros) this year alone to help develop the region's transport and tourism infrastructure, Chelidze said.

On the outskirts of Mestia, workers are building a new runway and airport that are expected to be ready by December 1. Regular flights are being planned from Georgian cities including the capital Tbilisi.

Renovation work on the road into Svaneti is also set for completion this year. Parts have already been covered in solid concrete blocks and teams of workers dot the route, hammering into the mountainsides with jackhammers.

Chelidze said the government's efforts are aimed at improving conditions in what is one of Georgia's poorest regions.

"This is bringing jobs and opportunities to the people here," he said.

But the government's projects have caused some controversy, sparking protests and even brief clashes between residents and police.

Some residents in Mestia said the government is imposing top-down changes without consulting the local community and using companies and workers from outside the region for infrastructure projects.

Questions over land ownership - which in the past were decided informally among the region's families - have also provoked problems.

Several residents and police were injured in brief clashes in July after protests erupted in support of four people who had been arrested for extortion.

The four had tried to sell land to a foreign investor that had been in their family for generations but was not legally registered as under their ownership.

"It's good for Svaneti to develop, but a lot of the things they are doing are wrong," said Temur Nakani, a 61-year-old pensioner in Mestia.

"They're hurting farmers by taking away their land and local people are not being employed, the companies are bringing in workers from outside Svaneti."

"No one asked us if this is what we wanted," he said.

Chelidze dismissed the concerns, saying "a few people in the opposition" were stirring up discontent.

Some have also raised fears that ending Svaneti's isolation could threaten the region's unique culture, but residents and officials say Svaneti's identity is strong enough to resist assimilation.

Chelidze said developing the region would in fact reverse a wave of out-migration in recent years as residents sought better opportunities in the rest of Georgia.

"This will prevent more people from leaving and bring people back to Svaneti," he said. "We are not damaging Svanetian culture, we are preserving it."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Arts and Entertainment

Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Sergio Aguero prepares for the game

Follow the latest events from this Champions League fixture

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album