Georgian Caucasus

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October 3rd 2017
Published: October 3rd 2017
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It is amazing how crossing a border, a small stream in this case, can be significant. Crossing from Armenia to Georgia, from one former Soviet republic to another, it is clear we are changing from one culture to another. The Georgians tell us that they like to drink wine and get up late the next morning while the Armenians like to be up early and work hard. The Armenians had told us much the same thing.

Christmas Day here is January 7th, the old Christmas they say, and the old New Year is on Jan. 14th. Not wishing to miss an excuse for a party, Georgians celebrate both New Years and spend the time inbetween visiting family and friends, and having another party or two. In the Svaneti valley there are 180 festival days every year ...

We visit the cave village of Vardzia, set in a huge sandstone cliff. After climbing steps, cut some 900 years ago, we enter a world of cave rooms and interconnecting tunnels. There are rooms carved within larger caves, double storey caves, caves with terraces, storage caves and a few wine cellar caves. Over 2,500 people once lived here but now just a few monks occupy one corner of the complex. The engineering is impressive and the home surprisingly cozy.

Onward and upward, we climb into the mountains, the Northern or Great Caucases. The small and lovely town of Mestia is remote but has the air of a mountain resort. This is where locals come to climb, hike and ski.

Higher still, at 2,400 metres, Ushguli, population 290, claims to be the highest continuously occupied village in Europe. But are we in Europe? On the way up, we visit St. George's church, its walls covered in 12th century frescos. They are slightly faded but still beautiful after 900 years.

For about three months each year, Ushguli is totally cut off. During the rest of the year, it is only reachable by 4-wheel drive vehicles along a 47 km (30 mile) track that clings to the mountainside, teetering over the river below. The journey takes more than two hours. The road is being improved, slowly, and in a few years time Ushguli's isolation will be a thing of the past.

Every family in the Svaneti valley has a watchtower attached to their home. Four or five storeys high and perhaps 3 metres square, these windowless stone buildings dominate the landscape. They combined defence with grain storage and shelter from avalanches ... and clearly no farmstead was complete without one.

We can travel no further north west as the next province, South Ossetia, is occupied by Russia. Unlike in Armenia, here Russia is seen as a worrying aggressor. Georgia would like to be closer to NATO and the EU but further integration is unlikely. With nobody to protect it, many Georgians feel menaced by their Russian neighbour. When South Ossetia was invaded, Ukraine alone stepped in to help the Georgians.

The weather is cooler now, in the mid-teens, and there is fresh snow on the mountain peaks. But, thankfully, it stays dry.

We will head east now to visit more of this interesting country.

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