In Georgia, in the mountains, stories are not written down but passed on orally from generation to generation. First the story comes as a poem, then it becomes a ballad and finally, a myth. That’s why it is also hard to keep track of dates. They are almost meaningless in the mountains. But on the other hand you are always told exactly where something took place, where this story or that one occurred, where someone had an accident or where their enemy fell upon them.
The region of Khevsureti, that I always explore, is in east Caucasus. A while ago I heard about two villages there, Guro and Shatili, who started fighting about their pastural territory; over years the fight turned into a decades-long feud. I researched the origin of this ongoing feud for several years until I finally found out that the first scrap between the villagers happened in 1900. The winner of the first round of this feud was the party who brought guns along; the losers only had swords.
In the Caucasus, the Middle Ages lasted well into the 20th century. It sounds paradoxical but the timing was about the same as the Soviet Union lasted. For the Georgian people, the Caucasus and the stories from the mountains there are highly valued. The mountains in these narratives by our writers are a holy place, somewhere the people are better and more pure than those who live in the valleys below. Even residents of the Georgian cities will try to convince you that they too come from the mountains and that the Caucasus has the most beautiful mountains in the world, and that the people who live there are especially hospitable. This seems to be part of our national character. We also have a sea but we were never really an ocean-going folk. The sea is a passageway while the mountains are the end of the line. We’re always trying to get to the mountains.
If Georgia had not had mountains the Georgian empire would never have survived. The mountains were a place of refuge and aid, a hiding place for both the simple people and the monarchy, and for both material and immaterial treasures. Without those narrow gorges in the Caucasus, Georgia wouldn’t have lasted until the 19th century because the country was always surrounded by powerful and dominating neighbours. Compare Georgia to another neighbour, the Armenian empire, which lay on the high plateau and which could not exist as an independent kingdom after the 10th century.
Even today, the mountains are somewhat archaic. Our mountains, and the east Caucasus in particular, are an El Dorado for ethnographers and anthropologists. Pre-Christian rituals are still practiced here. Often in Khevsureti I’ve experienced, and been able to film, such customs and festivals – for example, a special horse race in which a horse belonging to somebody who just died takes part.
They name this creature the “spirit horse”. The race takes place without saddles and makes its way along mountain paths until it reaches the home of the deceased. This ritual is undertaken in an almost automatic way, without any detailed knowledge or questions. It’s a unique situation because the knowledge about the race has been lost - yet the ritual is still undertaken.
Apart from all of that, the mountains are also difficult to control. Law and order is far away. Even under the far stricter Soviet regime, everyone in the Caucasus mountains, including those in Khevsureti, had a gun at home. Because the mountain rules about hospitality at all times counts more than anything else, locals would host anyone who turned up here, whether they were Georgian patriots who fought the Communists in the 1920s, or Chechnyan revolutionaries resisting the Russians in the 1990s, and who often crossed the Georgian border to catch their breaths.
Because they often gave hospitality to enemies of the state, the people in Khevsureti were punished and in 1953, they were even forcibly displaced and moved into the valleys, thanks to the “light” hand of Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Khevsureti was virtually depopulated.
Later on a small number of locals returned to the mountains but the fortress villages of Khevsureti were never the same again. Economically it became impossible for the area to support itself and the traditional varieties of grain were no longer planted. Since then the mountains have been dependent on the valleys, in terms of commerce.
During the 1990s I saw how traditions and rituals in the mountains began to disappear. Earlier hunting here was controlled by traditional rules. For every man living here, an ibex was a dream catch. This species of wild goat lives at over 3,000 meters on the most difficult to reach cliffs and slaying one of these meant that a boy had become a man. Despite this, the ibex were only ever hunted in moderation because locals in Khevsureti believed that they paid a penance for every animal they caught, and if they killed too many, they and their ancestors would be cursed.
This belief system functioned until the 1990s. After this, the wild animals began to be hunted by Georgian criminal elites and army generals, who simply shot them from their helicopters. At this stage the mountain dwellers, who had been watching this process from below, also decided to start hunting “their” wild animals, without pity. Also at this time, there were a lot of those damn Kalashnikovs in the hills. So the 1990s were not just a tragic era for the people in this region but also for the animals.
By the turn of the 21st century, there were only very few people still living in the Khevsureti area. A village with seven or eight families would be considered a big one. In the local dialect you call your family “qwamli” – but that phrase counts only for those who share your home and stay in the mountains during winter.
I knew people like this, who were living all alone in the homes of their forefathers. Theirs was often the only house from which smoke came out of the chimney, while all around them, the rest of their village was in ruins. These people would spend five or six months of winter completely cut off from the world, fighting for survival every single day. Some of them would succumb in this dramatic fight, freezing while outside, drowning in a lake or caught in an avalanche. A lot of them couldn’t handle it and moved down to the valley. I remember how Khevsureti just got more and more empty.
Since 2004, there has been a tourism boom in Georgia, which has done much good for a portion of the mountain-dwelling locals, including those in Khevsureti. Family-run hostels are being established, horses are used to bring the suitcases of foreigners across the passes and the locals sell their own eco-products.
The traditional mountain hospitality has diminished thanks to modern relationships with money but at least the mountain people can now profit from their lives here. Previously the people lived off their livestock or the potato harvest. They may well have been wealthier than I am, with their innumerable cattle, thousands of sheep and tonnes of potatoes, but they never had any cash. They would simply swap their products for other goods, which were brought up into the mountains by traders with trucks in late autumn.
Tourism has changed all that. Now there is cash in circulation in the mountains. Not all of the mountain dwellers but certainly some of them have become prosperous.
In other parts of Georgia the development of tourism has been somewhat chaotic. In contrast to other mountain areas of Svaneti and Khevi (in the Kazbegi district), mass tourism never came to Khevsureti and Tusheti, on the other side of the mountain. The reason is that a comprehensive infrastructure for tourism doesn’t exist. There is a much loved hiking trail that goes through Khevsureti, taking you from Kazbegi to the village of Omalo in Tusheti that allows you to roam the entire east Caucasus by foot. Most of the people on the trail are Europeans on hiking tours. Often these are people who love nature and who don’t cause a lot of damage to the environment.
Recently though, the Georgian government had the utterly absurd idea of connecting the three mountain regions with one highway, that was supposed to cross various mountain passes at over 3,000 meters.
Up until now there have only been the three regions but no central connecting road; you could only reach them from the valleys below, with each region a dead end unto itself and bordering directly onto modern Russia. All of these incorporate small, hidden mountain paradises. If this project, to which there are many objections, is actually realised then it will lead to many disturbances in the local environment (the highway will run through nature reserves and national parks) and in places where there are now small family-run businesses, giant hotels will be built. The number of tourists will naturally rise – but that means mass tourism, not quality tourism, with all of its consequences.
This will impoverish both the nature and the diversity of species in Georgia, as well as the local culture. My biggest nightmare would be to see a friend from Khevsureti, or his children, all dressed up in the uniform of a concierge or a croupier.