That Sinking Feeling: Svaneti


The road, the road… lifeline from Zugdidi up to Ushguli, from sea level to Europe’s highest village. Another road takes you down from there via Lentekhi to Kutaisi, but it was only ever clear enough from snow to be open from mid-May through mid-October, global warming aside. President Saakashvili’s renovation of the Zugdidi-Mestia stretch was a game-changer, once he sent in the helicopters to deal with the Bad Guys who were Upper Svaneti’s main bandits and godfathers. Travel time plunged from over six hours to about three.

The new safety, and new speed, made for a huge difference. The president also ordered huge changes in the look of Mestia itself; tax breaks for new investors in the area; renovation of one, and building from scratch of another ski resort; replacement for the town’s main museum; and more. Shops and guest accommodation bloomed; winter tourism has rebounded as well.

Which is all why it is too frustrating to see the current condition of the road. I always knew, we all did, that laying that thin concrete or asphalt strip was the easy part, that dealing with the forces of fast-motion geology and weather acting against it from above and below, a different story. High maintenance, indeed.

My last drive down from my village near Mestia to Zugdidi for shop restocking showed me what the current policy regarding the road must be. Yes, the frequent rock-falls are being cleaned up on virtually a daily basis. Yes, snow clearing has been good this very snowy though mild winter. Tunnels are getting some good attention and upgrades too, especially one of the longest, the surface of which seemed chaotically to reach into four physical dimensions, let alone three. But… the places where heaving or sinking have happened, leading your vehicle to buck up or down, must be considered too mild to repair. We have more important bits to work on, right?

Well, in a few km stretch between Etseri and Lakhamula, there are three NEW stretches where half the road has fallen away completely, leaving a single lane. This after three more such pieces between Etseri and Pari were somewhat repaired after months’ work last year, though they are still quite messy. In each case, a massive reinforced cement wall must be built to support the new road replacement. Add needs to house the workers on-site in trailers; electricity, water, sewage, and you’ve really got a job on your hands. So, triage: dealing with the most urgent cases only, and ignoring the rest.

Not to mention that much of the as-yet non-tarmacked cement surface which runs from Jorkvali up is losing its smooth texture under the constant bombardments of rock-falls, rapid temperature changes/freeze of water, and simple wear from vehicles. So what if it’s getting slightly rougher? This can only lead to more surface water settling in, more freezing which can even crack solid rock, and you’re back up to a six-hour trip in a couple more years’ time.

Stop whining, right? Well, I’ve been on the dark side of all this. The Bad Guys were also my protectors when I hardly knew I needed them, thanks to my friendship with one of their cousins (I live in his, and their, village now). We never took just one day to reach his home from Tbilisi then; two were always necessary. First and second gear were all our vehicles ever saw once we left Jvari and began the climb into Svaneti itself.

Progress? Regress more, now. A policy of ignoring anything touched by Saakashvili, letting it slide back into ruin? That’s what it looks like more and more.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1800 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

01 March 2018 18:38