Sometimes your chosen map application has already indicated to you that your journey is entering a new phase, on other occasions you are taken by surprise…
… Either way, where the tarmac ends the adventure begins. This text is about how going a bit further on my leisure trips has added value to my work at EUMM Georgia.
Tucked away in the northeastern part of the country and steeped in ancient folklore, Khevsureti boasts an unparalleled fairytale landscape, jam-packed with wild forests, misty mountains, and cultural heritage sites galore. Since my first visit in 2019, I have returned countless times, always staying at the same guesthouse.
Anchored in a hodgepodge of French, German, and English I have become good friends with the family that run the place with impeccable Georgian hospitality. Mirza, a native Khevsur and guide extraordinaire, built the guesthouse a few years back and has over the years been tremendously generous in showing me his Khevsureti.
”The landscape lends itself as your shared means of communication”
Although the language barrier is always present, it is astonishing how it seemingly evaporates when you walk together through pathless meadows or climb a ridge to a primeval fortress. Immersed in the moment, the landscape lends itself as your shared means of communication.
Malinka is Russian for raspberry, and bererza means birch, which with a bit of imagination isn’t too dissimilar from the Swedish björk. The smile of success, and relief, when you make it up a summit after a hairy traverse is a universal language that we shared on many memorable occasions.
This summer I returned with my mind set on visiting a specific defense tower in the hamlet of Akhieli, nestled in the narrow Arkhoti valley. As Mirza and I drove towards our destination, at an altitude of 2000 metres, we saw how the clouds rolled in thick and fast to put a lid on the valley below us. I was initially afraid that we would have to abort, but as my Toyota Pajero charged down through the clouds the narrow valley of Arkhoti finally presented itself.
Here, the two rivers Chimghistskali and Tsirilovantskali merge into the meandering Asatskali which we followed into the sparsely populated hamlet of Akhieli. A friend of Mirza’s invited us to his house and a Georgian spread, a supra, was quickly arranged, the watermelon was particularly delicious, and a series of toasts followed in rapid succession. The house was built in 1937 in the for the region typical stone-construction that doesn’t use mortar.
The tower is always worth the travel, and after another round of toasts we climbed up to it. Towering above the village on a hillside, it was as picture-perfect as I had hoped.
I was particularly enthusiastic about how its shape differed from the towers I had seen in Khada valley. The Akhieli tower lacked the u-shaped side towards the hillside, allegedly constructed this way to withstand avalanches, and had a different, tapered, cap. Apparently the Khevsureti towers have more in common with the towers in Svaneti.
In the vicinity of the 14th century tower, we came across a gathering of shrines called jvari (cross) or khati (shrines). One should keep a good distance of at least 20 metres as the land they stand on is sacred. Different shrines belong to different gods from the Khevsureti pantheon and are often decorated with deer antlers and quartz stones.
The next stop on our tour was Amhga, the last smattering of houses in Arkhoti valley. In this far- flung place, some of the region’s most impressive shrines are gathered. If Google translate is to be believed, the main shrine is the ’Shrine of Bold Hero Iakhsar Pillar of Light’. Iakhsar is a demigod, and incidentally also the name of my favourite Georgian metal band.
Unbeknownst to me, the mountain festival of Atengenoba was to be celebrated the following day and we were invited to take part in the preparations. I was delighted to see that a few of the celebrants wore the traditional Khevsur tunik which is beautifully adorned with an intricate cross-pattern of colourful stitching.
A key part of this festival is the slaughter of lambs and the brewing of a light and honeycomb-coloured beer in the purpose-built beerhouse called salude. Upon our arrival, the beverage was poured into copper bowls and the designated toastmaster, tamada, lead a series of toasts to relatives past and present.
”Travelling beyond tarmac’s end has added to my professional skillset”
Days like these fill my heart and offer a privileged insight into Georgian customs and culture.
I bring this frame of mind with me when I return to work and perceive that it helps me to connect with the people we meet on patrol. This is particularly true when we monitor cultural heritage and speak to locals about access to sites and preservation of intangible cultural heritage.
Having witnessed first-hand the paramount importance of these elements in Khevsureti, it enables me to understand the weight of cultural heritage and to ask the right questions when addressing the topic.
There is no doubt in my mind that the curiosity sparked by travelling beyond tarmac’s end has added to my professional skillset. And, luckily, there is always another tower waiting for a visit.