22 Jun 2021

Svaneti, 11-18 June, 2021

An ancestral Svan punishment consisted to hang a roughly round shaped flat stone to the neck of whoever was found guilty of a common crime. This small piece of trivia might not appear utterly interesting, yet I found myself imaging being one of those ancient culprits, perhaps wondering from village to village. The crime itself was not well defined, however the stone was a heavy thought that kept hanging on my neck.

Wandering the hiking trails that connect Mestia to Ushguli made me raise some questions regarding the state of Georgia in the collective imaginary, and specially in my own imaginary.

Svaneti spikes as one of the main cultural regions of Georgia: it has own language, its own rules, its own merits, its difficult character, its own deserved and clear distinction from the rest: it recently jumped into a whirlpool of mass tourism, of adaptation and promotion of its heritage.

Heavily hit by the pandemic, the region remains today in a sort of suspension.

In an era in which each country is fiercely competing for shares of mass tourism, there seems to be common points: a heavy promotion that invests into the revival of a somehow forgotten but important region, an initial influx of travelers and global trotters that align, and consume, and promote the primal share of a golden promise, followed by an expansion that exceeds the initial intentions of revitalization: the primordial and unique elements of a place slowly turn into a cliché of sorts, spaces slowly convert to mostly fast, easy, overpriced, arenas of consumption (pop up guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir shops, markets).

The main expectation of using natural and/or cultural resources as leverage of communication, sharing and economical engagement suddenly mutate into Disneyland attractions.

In short we end up navigating a structure that puts the pillars of a tourist trap where nothing feels authentic, everything is made to the quick and cheap expectation of a tourist that only job is to bring money.

One can assert that it all depends on what we are looking for when we travel, that there is still possible to go out of the beaten track, that limited time push for a model of consumption that could feed the essentials: an Instagram post, a souvenir, a traditional dish: all elements by definition fast consumed and from which any cultural involvement is either crippled or impossible.

But if this model suits the majority of us then it means that the sites that aim to be a privilege tourist destination find not other choice than appeal to that caustic trash-cultural model.

By being on the spot of the attention, easy profit becomes a fast solution to address any kind of issues from important ones like better roads and transport, better electrical grid, better water supply, a clean renovation and curation of buildings, to more individualistic ones creating a short circuit between the responsibility to trick the new tourist architecture as platform to jump into the pool of the so called global community, and the easy comforts that comes when elements that knitted the community and welded its spirit are sacrificed.

Svaneti was presented to me as the must go place in Georgia: there is no doubt that the hiking trails and the omnipresence of the higher Caucasus, of its almighty Ushba, the unusual Ullukara, the majestic Chatyn Tau, and the immensity of Bashkara, inject a dose of overwhelming beauty.

Walking to Ushba Glacier, to Koruldi Lakes, one have the impression that everything is possible, that the mountain range is source of mystical influence to whoever transits its trails.

Yet natural beauty is a lucky scenography: the more accessible the more lucky we feel.

Walking to Ushguli from Mestia still evokes poetry, and romanticism when facing the presence of ancient towers as big, and numerous as the rest of the mountainous peaks.

Reaching Adish by the time twilight is cast into the village towers has no price if I have to name a highlight.

Svaneti was sold to me as the place of cultural contrast: Georgia is not a homogeneous country, its regional richness in such a small surface when explore and understood gives a constant feeling of surprises and enjoyment.

Svaneti does not thrive in popularity because of how welcoming is its population; however it evokes strong virtues, a life of hardness, and a well crafted millennial identity that managed, despite of its isolation, to flourish.

Nothing is easy in Svaneti unless money makes its way, language represent a strong barrier: English is not the language for the communication of our intentions, feels, and wishes but is a tool limited for commerce: prices are fixed and cartel controlled. Georgian language surely opens more doors and empathy to the world of a community that seems, to once again, and in spite of the massive improvement of the accessibility of most of the corners of the region, tightly convinced into the idea of the tourist as a foreign commodity.

Towns are deprived of soul and warm, of any attempt towards any different or innovative approach to present themselves within the limits of their possibilities.

Tourist however make no effort or have no time to go past this bar, to question what they are consuming: eating an Acharuli kachapuri in Svaneti? A Khinkali? Misunderstanding wines and high mountains? An overprice and useless net of local transport where there are virtually no difficult 4x4 terrains to face?

It looks like a double side issue what this new transformation brought to the region: from one side there is a lack of incentive to remain and explore the region beyond a calculated schedule, an extra day means an extra expense that does not seems to give more value but to create an annoyance since the tourist structure is not build to endure longer as it is completely devoid of an inner vital force.

Pandemic was used as an excuse of this dismissal but I have strong doubts: pandemic was just the proof that showed the risk of outselling, of focusing on quantity rather than quality and diversification of other forms, perhaps of slower and sustainable consumption.

It was difficult to shrug the feeling of being told lies, to presented them as truths, trickery won over some naivety.

At the end of a long and spectacular walk, Ushguli was a sort of disappointment, not worse than Mestia which has nothing to offer but guesthouses, mediocre restaurants, a cinema that projects ad nauseam a film, Dede, that beyond its drama, its touching story, and its spectacular scenography, tells nothing but the intention of keep clichés that can be easily sold to a fast consumption tourist model, a well curated museum that evoked nostalgia rather than impetus.

Museums explores the identity of a community, they offer a contrast with our present, a light to keep evolving. But, again it felt just like a showcase of antiques, not like a place to have a taste of the contemporaneity of a region that is facing the vanishing of the Svan language for example.

At the end of a long a spectacular walk I ended up feeling that the right word to describe the trip made with my good friend T. was a journey through empty towers.

Svaneti was a sort of segregated tourist experience: local interaction was minimal and distant, foreigners were in their majority concentrated into their virtual projections, a couple of Portuguese influencers met on the way were just walking advertisers, complaining about the lack of Wi-Fi, constantly broadcasting.

I wonder if what I saw in Svaneti is not something that can infect other places of Georgia, Tbilisi in primis. Slowly becoming part of a club of deprived places like Venezia, or Bali: sad example on how a community and their spirit go to die, where nature is violated, where noise prevails over dialogue, where only remains the strange will of tagging a post on a social media: the cheapest way to say I belong.