I never tire of looking at Georgian mountains. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that, although I’ve lived in several states in different parts of the US, I always live in flat country. As a child, I would go sledding down “hills” on the golf course, because the only elevation we had was man-made. Then I came to Georgia, where almost any view has hills or mountains in the background. Tbilisi is ringed by hills, with apartments even stretching onto some of the hills.
The real beauty of Georgia, however, opens up when you leave Tbilisi, when you head to the real mountains. In summer, they are verdant green, covered with trees and shrubs and various plants, even primeval forests. Sometimes there are even colorful wildflowers sprinkled in amongst the greenery for variety. Villages are scattered among the mountains, and if you look closely, you’ll undoubtedly find a Georgian Orthodox church perched on some hill or mountain. There might even be no discernible road or even path to this church, but nonetheless, the church remains as a symbol to the faithful and a sanctuary for the intrepid who dare to climb up to it. I look at these mountains in Georgia and I see beauty everywhere.
Certainly, there are taller mountains elsewhere. I’ve been to the Rockies, which are certainly impressive, but they don’t speak to me like the Caucasus do. Perhaps because here in Georgia, I see how difficult life can be in the mountains, and it is easier to imagine how long ago people forged a life in such beautiful and stark surroundings. When I stare at the mountains, I can see invading foreign armies pouring over them, mountaineers fighting valiantly to protect their rugged homeland, and millennia of shepherds grazing their flocks on the graceful slopes. Learning about the history and being here, breathing in the mountain air, gazing upon vistas that my camera can never really capture, and knowing how difficult it is even in 2013 to get to the mountains, I think I understand a little more about Georgia than I did before. The clannishness, the wars, the intense patriotism, the capacity to withstand discomfort…these all make more sense now.
A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Shatili, a remote village in Khevsureti, one of the more remote, mountainous parts of Georgia. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, but the road is only passable in summer, so I had never been before. I wanted to go because I knew that there was an ancient fortress/town high in the mountains, close to the border with Chechnya, and it was beautiful.
I had not really appreciated how unique Shatili and Khevsureti really were. The Soviets would not allow the Khevsurs (natives of Khevsureti) to remain in their isolated mountain villages and forced them to come down to more “civilized” parts of the country. The Khevsurs suffered as a result. Even though Tbilisi has hills, the Khevsurs longed to see their mountains every day. In the 1980s, they started to rebuild Shatili and families returned. Now, in the summer, twenty families live in Shatili but only seven remain all year long. It is the biggest community around. Only native Khevsurs are allowed to own property in Khevsureti. While Georgia is becoming modernized in so many ways, these mountainous areas still keep their traditions, and in Shatili, only natives to the area own property. When you’re a six-hour ride on a difficult road away from Tbilisi, it’s a lot easier to keep local laws enforced than anything that might be handed down from the federal authorities.
Before we left, the tour guide told us that in other places in Georgia, the mountains are “here” and stuck his hand out. In Shatili, however, the mountains are “here”, and he brought his hand right up to his face. I did not really understand what he meant until we arrived. Shatili is set in a small valley of sorts, which mountains ringing it in every direction. There is the town of about two streets, a river, and just enough flat ground for people to camp. The mountains really are upon you.
The tour guide also said that he has had some tourists look at the fort and be unimpressed. It’s a long and painful drive to Shatili just to see some old stone towers. However, there’s a certain amount of magic to Shatili. It does not necessarily hit you at first, but as you breathe in the mountain air, stare at the fort stark against the mountainside, make a toast with a drinking horn, and listen to someone strum a chongoli (a traditional Georgian stringed instrument), it starts to make sense.
The more time I spent in Shatili, the more in awe I was. The scenery is breathtaking, but the fact that people have carved out a life here, in this tucked away part of the mountains, with the ever present fear of Chechen raiders coming down from Russia, is awe-inspiring. Even in summer, the air is crisp and cool. Shatili did not have electricity until one of Saakashvili’s projects created a hydroelectric power station. There are no stores in Shatili. Yet people have clung to this place they call home in spite of significant obstacles. Perhaps they’ve done it because it is beautiful, perhaps because it is simply their home. Regardless, it’s impressive.
Khevsureti is one of the extreme regions of Georgia, but the mountain fierceness resonates throughout much of Georgia. The mountains have helped shape Georgia’s history, culture, and according to a recent article by the BBC, maybe even the language. As I study the language and see more of the country, I start to understand this ancient land through experience. As I gaze upon the mountains, I appreciate why Georgians have fought so hard and suffered so much for their little patch of earth. I also understand why they claim in the favorite origin myth that God gave them the part of Earth he had reserved for himself. I probably would have done the same.
By: Hannah Kay
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2013