Mestia to Ushguli: Is Svaneti In Danger Of Losing Its Mysticism?

Agendas – hidden or otherwise – are proving to play a big part in trail development in this part of the world.

Sometimes there is a peace-building motive, knitting together fragmented nations by means of a common travel corridor. More often an effort is framed in terms of the future financial benefits, which usually boils down to a simple equation between more trails and more tourism dollars.

But it is rare to come across a trailbuilding effort whose primary stated aim is to improve access to the outdoors for its own sake.

Personally, I make no apology for being skeptical of economic justifications for building a footpath. I’ve spent nearly a decade travelling and exploring by foot, bicycle, kayak, horse and thumb in some of the most remote corners of the world, usually alone, always independently, and if there’s been a consistent pattern among the thousands of people I’ve briefly befriended and spent time with, it’s that – once life’s essentials are fulfilled – there is little or no obvious correlation between wealth and happiness. Rather, to paraphrase a popular but politically incorrect quote, “the richest man is he who needs the least.”

I could draw on any number of first-hand anecdotes that would illustrate this. But perhaps the most relevant right now is the story of one Georgian village the Transcaucasian Expedition visited last week while working alongside fellow TCT members Marta, James and Beka.

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We were based for a week in Upper Svaneti, where the Greater Caucasus range pushes up against the modern-day Russian border in a chain of formidable, craggy and permanently snowcapped peaks. The aim of the visit was to engage directly in conversation with community leaders in a string of villages that would be passed by the TCT, and I was there in my role as the driver of the Land Rover that would allow us access to these communities, as well as an observational filmmaker.

Rather than take the neocolonial approach of descending from on high and bribing simple peasants with grand promises, or dumping some bureaucrat’s idea of an improvement in a community’s midst and buggering off, Marta – who had taken the lead on this initiative – took a more sensitive approach. With Beka, co-founder of the Georgian National Hiking Federation, acting as a linguistic and cultural interpreter, she thanked the locals for their time, framed the TCT as no more than an idea under consideration, and expressed two important principles – first, that we would not take any action whatsoever without the express consent of the community, and second, that their wishes and concerns would be put at the core of any decisions we made.

(Common-sense behaviour, really, when you’re planning on putting a footpath through someone’s back garden.)

As part of these conversations, our intention was also to probe the communities’ thoughts on hiking-based tourism, in order to build a picture of their understanding of the impact that such a change might have upon their fiercely traditional way of life.

The first such meeting took place in the headteacher’s office of Ushguli school, with a mixture of teachers and interested locals in attendance – perhaps 25-30 people crammed into the small room.

Something was already obvious, however, even before we carried out this first consultation.

Ushgulians didn’t need anyone to explain to them what the impacts of hiking-based tourism might be.

In fact, their village was already a long way down the path towards becoming a fully tourism-dependent community.

It stood in stark contrast to all I’ve seen in similarly remote regions of Armenia – a country most wouldn’t even be able to place on a map, let alone consider visiting. Among the stone towers and alpine pastures of Ushguli, every lamppost was adorned with guesthouse adverts (in five languages). New and architecturally inconsistent guesthouses were popping up all over the place, overpriced traditional produce was stacked high in roadside kiosks and on bar counters, and minibuses full of day-trippers were being continuously loaded and unloaded. And it was still only May, with snow and hailstorms not just a possibility but something that several times threatened to keep us stuck in the mountains.

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We wouldn’t have known any of this unless we’d come here to see for ourselves, of course. But when a small boy exits his school gates, sees a foreign-registered Land Rover, and immediately asks its occupants in perfect English if they need a guesthouse for the night, you can be pretty sure the lure of tourist dollars is firmly embedded in the collective consciousness.

Another illustration of what tourists have come to represent came when we were offered a discounted price at the Ushguli guesthouse we did stay at that night. After getting to know the owner over dinner, we asked Beka why the display of generosity. He replied:

“Because it’s clear to him that you’re not ‘normal’ tourists.”

Don’t get me wrong: the landscapes of Svaneti are as close to perfection as a hiker could wish for, and the gutsy mountain food and flamboyant culture of drinking and toasting are only going to make Georgia friends.

But woe betide the ‘normal tourist’ who hikes into the region expecting the authentic mountain hospitality described in books like Bread and Ashes. In the last decade, and fuelled primarily by tourism dollars, Svaneti – from my personal perspective – risks losing the very charm that brings expectant visitors here in the first place.

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Expectations have the power to degrade the lives of locals, too. Because if your neighbour opens a guesthouse and a within a couple of years builds a new home for himself and starts barging about in a nice big SUV, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll feel inferior or jealous – which of course is exactly how consumerism is supposed to work. Despite the fact that your immediate circumstances haven’t changed, you now have an unfulfilled need that you didn’t have before.

This is exactly what seems to have happened in one of the villages west of Ushguli – or, to make an important clarification, a cluster of villages under a single name but self-identifying as separate, neighbouring communities. We’d arranged in advance to meet representatives of each village at a central location, in order to carry out the same consultation exercise we’d already been through in several other communities after Ushguli. So far, the response had been plain and simple: more tourists here means more money for us, so bring it on – but we’ll believe it when we see it.

Scanning the surrounds with my filmmaker’s hat on, the first thing I noticed on arrival was that the waymarking of the trail noticeably more vigorous here – red and white blazes not just on rocks and trees but on buildings and street corners; branching out in new and exciting shapes and colours; experiments with arrows instead of horizontal stripes; splashes of blue, green and yellow, too. All very pretty, if somewhat confusing.

The villagers trickled in: first the guy we’d contacted in advance, then a couple of his friends, and after a few more minutes perhaps 20 or so faces of every age had coalesced, arms folded, furrowed brows. And Marta and Beka began the now-familiar consultation routine, thanking them for their time, and explaining the idea behind the TCT.

It was when it came to inviting their thoughts on the idea that things started to heat up. Voices were raised. The group splintered, hands thrown angrily up in the air, and a half-dozen arguments took the place of an orderly discussion. Testosterone and frustration flew, amplified by a cultural enjoyment of a good old shouting match, likely a few shots of home-made cha-cha fanning the flames.

Beka – the only native Georgian in our group and thus the only person who understood the words – kept his cool and engaged with only the more elderly and less tempestuous villagers. I assumed that as long as he wasn’t dodging punches it was safe to stick around. And as he found gaps in which to translate for us, it became clear that the uproar had nothing to do with the TCT or our ideas at all.

Some years earlier, it transpired, as part of President Saakashvili’s push to make Georgia attractive to foreign travellers and businesspeople alike, Svaneti had been identified as a strong candidate for Alpine-style mountain tourism. Ambition and resources had filtered down to the municipal level, and from the regional capital of Mestia – which it was rumoured had been pencilled in as the new Chamonix of the Greater Caucasus – tenders had been put out to signpost and waymark a network of hiking and trekking routes in the region, which would be supported by local tourist information offices, printed maps and guides, and an international publicity campaign.

(Common-sense behaviour, really, when you’re planning to impose top-down economic transformation upon a region.)

Well – whoever had won the job of developing the trail through this cluster of villages had hit on the fantastic idea of routing it directly to the front door of his brand new guesthouse.

So while one lucky chap put himself on the winning end of a get-rich-quick scheme, the other 99% of local inhabitants grew resentful as the hikers began to trickle in from Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Israel; the transformation working exactly as planned.

In other words, in this particular case, an increase in hiking-based tourism resulted in a net decrease in contentment and unity within this little cluster of remote Svanetian villages. A major conflict now existed where previously there had been none, affecting everyone in the community. And I imagine it wasn’t long before the clever guesthouse owner became embattled and defensive and unhappy, too.

Then everyone else with a guesthouse realised that they could grab a bucket of paint and a brush and reroute the hikers to their front door instead!

The result?

Overnight multicoloured chaos.

Our consultation gave everyone an opportunity to get all of this off their chest. It served as a very good example of just how insensitively it’s possible to do something, and just how negative the real-life ramifications could be. It also placed an onus on us, representing the TCT, to attempt to address the issue when designing our own trail, or at least to reframe the underlying pain point – which to my mind is the introduction of the need to behave competitively – as something that would not be directly connected to the trail.

In other words, the trail should go past either everybody’s guesthouse or nobody’s.

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The TCT section that will run through Svaneti is going to be stunning. No doubt about it.

But one of the issues I have with the idea of it being overtly linked to economic development is the danger of creating conflicts like this. As soon as a physical route benefits one business over another – which could be as simple as favouring whoever owns the first kiosk selling cold Coca-Cola on the way into a village – you disrupt the balance and create unpredictable consequences.

Neoliberals would of course argue that this is how the free market is supposed to operate. I would counter-argue that a public asset designed to take people away from civilization (and obliging no-one to spend anything) should steer as clear of economic ideologies as it should of highways and city centres.

And if this happens to instigate an indirect economic benefit that propagates organically through communities and results in a genuine increase in well-being for the majority, well then – great.

There are others issues, too. Isn’t it generally true, for example, that the kind of people who’d be attracted to a challenging backcountry trek – one that requires you to wild-camp along the way and practice self-sufficiency and independence – are also the kind of people who tend not to spend much money while they’re doing so? The TCT isn’t going to be a Camino de Santiago-style stroll, luggage shuttles and cafe con leches by day, cheap refugios and special-offer restaurant dinners by night. No – it is going to be a remote, long-distance mountain trek, one that promises to be every bit as demanding and rewarding as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail and their ilk.

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Sure, it’s probably easier to get funding from development agencies if you can frame what you’re doing in a way that promises measurable economic impacts (even if you can’t actually follow through on these promises), because that would conform to the financially-oriented standards by which our Western institutions insist on measuring the value of everything.

But the point is moot. For the reason I’m involved in this effort has absolutely nothing to do with increasing material wealth, bringing in more tourism dollars, or fostering economic development.

It is because I believe that having access to the world’s remaining wild and beautiful places – the ability to walk within them, to engage with the elements, to study and to understand, to spend time contemplating or conversing, or simply to exist in wonderment and appreciation of and connection with this Earth – is as much a fundamental human need as water, food and shelter.

I believe that if I can help foster a renewal of the relationship we have with our landscapes on the small patch of land I find myself living, we will all be wealthier as a result than any amount of money could represent.

That’s why I’m doing this. And I’d rather not cover up my true motives with platitudes.