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."

Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before