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."

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor