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Published: December 5th 2011
High in the Caucasus mountains, close to the Russian border, after an arduous 6 hour minibus journey on a terrible road, you end up in the ancient mysterious land of Svaneti.
“Hotcha ladakh!” we call out, causing the children to scatter in fits of giggles like frightened mice. Slowly, little faces reappear from behind broken masonry and an old rusting car. “Hello” the least timid one whispers back at us. “Hotcha ladakh” we say again. This time they literally roll over each other laughing.
“Are you sure that means hello?”
“Perhaps not the way we are pronouncing it.”
“Maybe he was winding us up and it means my mother is a horse or something like that”.
The reaction to our attempted politeness has become more pronounced with each person we pass; from a wry smile by the lady all in black at the bottom of the hill to a shared chuckle from the sturdy women carrying vegetables a bit further up. As we now approach a group of tough looking, weather beaten men, eyeing us curiously as they pause while lugging some hefty wooden beams up the cobbled slope, I suggest switching back to Georgian.
We are in Svaneti, an ancient and proud corner of Georgia, sitting high in the Caucasus Mountains. Few tourists make the seven hour minivan journey along the terrible
Mestia, the main town of Svaneti.
The stone defensive towers are around a 1000 years old and were used at times of frequent invasions.
twisting mountain “road” so the brand new and very plush tourist information office in Mestia, the region’s main town, was quite a surprise.
We had been trying, over the last week or so, and with great difficulty, to learn a few phrases in Georgian. The language is quite an anomaly, having a unique and thoroughly indecipherable alphabet and belonging to the Kartvelian language family which is unrelated to any other. The Svan language belongs to the same family but is mutually unintelligible. It is spoken by an ever decreasing number of people, currently about 30000, only up in Svaneti where it is fast losing out to Georgian.
At our request, the friendly chap in the tourist information office taught us to say hello and thank you in Svan - the most useful words (arguably “Cheers!” should be there too in this part of the world where the vodka flows like the mountain streams). I wrote them on my map, phonetically, given that while Georgian has its own cryptographic letters, Svan doesn’t have a written alphabet at all.
“Hello” seemed fairly easy in Svan: “hotcha ladakh”. I repeated it over and over
Mount Shkhara, Georgia's highest at 5193m (it's on the list), and a hardworking Svan lady, as ancient and as sturdy as the famous Svaneti defensive towers.
then worked out a system to store it in my brain: Old Albanian dictator plus region in the Indian Himalaya: Enver Hoxha plus Ladakh, “hotcha ladakh, hotcha ladakh”.
Approaching the group of leathery wrinkled men, who could be forty or eighty, I quickly try to recall the tricky Georgian word for hello – something to do with cricket but in a strong Borat accent: Game on your bat. “Gamarjobat” we offer nervously. “Gamarjobat” they nod, still eyeing us quite suspiciously. “Hotcha ladakh”. “Ahhh, hotcha ladakh!” they all cry out in unison, smiling from ear to ear and slapping us on the back like lost children. Maybe we are pronouncing it correctly after all.
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