Going to the mountains: Khevsureti, Georgia
Everybody knows the mountains. My landlord tells me stories of stone towers and stolen icons; the taxi-driver warns me of the dangers of being bride-napped. There are pagan shrines, crowned with horns, in Tusheti; in Svaneti there are blood-feuds. For Georgians, the mountains are at once totem and touchstone: a repository of atavistic legends about Georgian valour against invaders (of which there have been many), Georgian mastery in the primal battle against nature (it is not for nothing that the most famous folk hero is Amiran, the Caucasian answer to Prometheus), Georgian strength. The mountains are the genesis of Georgianness - where men roast goats, play the pandauri, and pay meet adoration to their household gods, where unmarried women, praise God, are still virgins.
Of course, nobody has ever been there. Despite the gradual development of tourist infrastructure - the Svaneti region is now home to an airport - few Georgians I know have ever made the trek into the Caucasus. The mountains, they suggest, are better imagined than experienced; there is no need to challenge the myth.
That, naturally, is what I decide to do.
Khevsureti was, and remains, the most mythic region of all. Of all of Georgia's mountain regions, it is the least accessible, and the only one completely absent from the backpacker trail. Once known for its distinctive brand of pagan-Christian syncreticism - St. George appears in legends alongside sun god Iachksar - Khevsureti is today virtually uninhabited. Villages like Mutso - a mountaintop conglomeration of black towers and steep shale drops - have been abandoned long since.
The drive from Tbilisi to Shatili - Khevsureti's capital, relatively crowded at sixteen households - takes seven hours; during the last four of these, we see no houses and only two other cars, one of which has broken down. In July, the sky is still prone to thunderstorming, and so the mountainside remains richly, extravagantly green. The cliffs buckle under us and the mountains rear up over us, and in the silence of their grandness we can hear the waterfalls that flow down the pass from Chechnya, the fusillade of raindrops, the noisy loping of goats.
We are taken to our guesthouse - a converted citadel, part of the old Shatili fortress; swaddled in by moss, by iridescent beetles and ruined stone. An old woman shuffles in, briefly, to take money from our guide and hurl futile curses at us; she leaves us to choose our own beds, boil water in the single, barely-functional kettle, and hang our sodden clothing on the unnerving, inexplicable weapons that line the main hall. (Inexplicable weapons, we discover, are an integral part of Khevsureti; our guide tries to impress an American girl by waving about his bayonet).
No food is served here - we feast on leftover bean-bread and grill our own meat, grown discomfitingly pungent on the drive up – and throw the remnants to a bounding clan of Kavkaz puppies. We drink homemade wine out of plastic water-bottles; by the time the stars come out, we have moved onwards to cha cha, which tastes like grappa laced with gasoline. Our guides insist we toast in the traditional Georgian style, effusive and artfully spontaneous, to wine, women and guide; they nod with cautious approbation when we, self-conscious and Anglo-Saxon, raise a glass to the Queen. (One of our number, drunk and muddy in white linen trousers, attempts a nonsense toast as a joke, and is nearly speared by the owner of the bayonet. Toasts are not to be trifled with). We light a fire; we watch as the darkness swallows up the mountain pass, flickering with our embers from green to black to green again.
The next morning, we visit the hamlet of Ardoti, where bone-strewn crypts pay tribute to various plagues - the infected would exile themselves here and wait to die among the dead. In silence we dare ourselves to look at the skulls. We climb to the peak at Mutso, where nobody has lived for centuries but where the icons at a dilapidated altar - the only one, we're told, in Khevsureti - are freshly polished and crowned with horns. Our guides, disinterested, graze on marijuana leaves, wild-grown on the pass. They've seen it all before.
But Khevsureti is new to me, and because the mountainside is so wildly green and because the air is so thick with beetle-sounds, I forget that I have come to judge it. I cannot judge it. To judge would be to think, and I cannot think here. Here my thinking-self - the self that scribbles down notes and takes photographs and is so often, so achingly, disappointed - is brought low by the intensity of that green. I can love this place but I can never know it. My love will always be a foreigner's love - submissive, uncomprehending, believing in its myths.
We roll back into Tbilisi at midnight. The city lights are bright and mad and the neon funicular is more appallingly blue than before. We've lost a tire; we've run out of food. It does not matter. We have been to the mountains.
- Getting to Shatili from Tbilisi is possible only from May or June to October. Marshrutkas -uncomfortable but serviceable minibuses - run from Didube bus station at 9 am on Wednesdays and Saturdays, returning at noon on Thursdays and Sundays (approx. 30 GEL, or about £12, each way). A more expensive option is to take a full-service tour through a company like TebuloTour: paata.ge/khevsureti_en.html.
- Guesthouses abound in the tiny hamlet of Shatili, most of which are located in renovated stone towers. These are all clearly marked with the mobile numbers of the proprietors - no advanced booking is required. Food is limited at best - bring a snack from Tbilisi. Expect to pay 30 GEL a night, without food.
Tara Isabella Burton (photo by Peter Rhodes)