While making Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure for ITV, the author and TV producer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent meets a memorable couple in the remote Svaneti region of Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains…
It’s lunchtime in Svaneti and already things have taken an alcoholic turn. “To our ancestors!” says Valeri, our host, raising yet another chacha-filled glass. “Gaumarjos!” I reply, grimacing as the home-made brandy ignites the back of my throat.
By the time we’ve toasted our families, St George, each other, good health, absent friends and the brother he lost fighting for Abkhazia, Valeri has offered me three hectares, a few cows and a house in the village.
“Bring your husband and make babies!” he cries, raising another glass.
Valeri may be generous, but he also wants neighbours. He and his wife Maro are the last inhabitants of Kichkuldashi, a thousand-year-old Svan hamlet whose ruined houses are scattered like broken teeth across an emerald hillside. In the 16th century 40 families lived here, but now just this elderly couple remain, cajoling an existence from the land with their earth-blackened hands.
“The last people left 14 years ago,” says Valeri, a moustachioed, black-eyed giant of a man with fingers as thick as a baby’s arm. On this sunny day, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to leave. Cows graze beside a tiny church. Pigs rootle. Bees hum. Wilderness spreads gloriously in all directions.
But as idyllic as it might seem, life here is not for the faint of heart. Winters can be brutal, and for decades the Svan people have been abandoning the mountains for an easier life in the lowlands. Now, with many villages half-empty and only 14,000 Svan speakers left, their culture is in danger of disappearing
“I could buy a new car with all the money I’ve lost from animals being eaten by wolves and bears,” Valeri tells me as Maro bustles in carrying another plate of khachapuri, Georgian cheese-filled bread. A wolf snatched their last dog from outside the door and a bear recently killed their prize bull. My life in Bristol feels decidedly tame by comparison.
During the communist period Soviet adventurers flocked to Svaneti to ski, walk and scale the ice-clad faces of the towering peaks. But the collapse of the USSR sent the region sliding into lawlessness, with armed gangs robbing and kidnapping at will. Blood feuds bedevilled the medieval villages and bride-kidnapping was the norm. In the early 1990s, UN observers regularly had their tyres ‘accidentally’ shot out by gun-toting Svan gangs after refusing their assailants’ offer of a drink.
But a new long-distance walking route, the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT), hopes to bring visitors back to this forgotten corner of the Caucasus. A dizzyingly ambitious project that will eventually stretch 3,000km across Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the TCT is being built in stages by hardy teams of local and international volunteers, with a 140km section recently mapped across Svaneti.
This new trail passes right through Kichkuldashi, and Valeri played a key role clearing paths, constructing bridges and showing the builders the network of old trading routes that once carried salt, gold, furs and grain in and out of this remote land.
Valeri and Maro hope the route will bring new life to the village. “We want tourists! We want to be part of the world. We want to meet people from other countries!” they say. “If more tourists come, then maybe some of the villagers will return, too.”
The couple have opened their house to encourage passing hikers to stop. A simple wooden sign outside advertises: “Family hotel: lunch and any other meal.” And what a treat awaits those who go. In 1888 British diplomat Sir John Oliver Wardrop wrote that being among the Georgians was “the best cure for melancholy and misanthropy that could well be imagined”. After meeting Valeri and Maro, I couldn’t agree more.
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