Zugdidi – Mestia, Georgia

Ștefan Cândea
Driving on our last vapours of oil and blessed with the first raindrops, we enter Mestia at high speed. Mestia is a highland townlet up in the Caucasus Mountains, more precisely the Svaneti region. From the dust cloud left behind, the police jeep we saw on the road and which escorted us for a while emerges. Our car went as fast as it could on vapours, but it was already coughing when we entered Mestia. We forgot to fill her up and there are no gas stations whatsoever along the 140-km road from Zgudidi to the highlands. We actually came across one with archaic pumps – but it was closed. However, an abacus and a receipt book in the window give me an inkling that it does operate now and then.

The police said they’d follow us just to make sure we wouldn’t be left on the road. We communicated in Russian, gesturing fervently. 35 km of potholes and ticking over to spare fuel. This is the second time we reach our destination under Georgian police guidance.

The oil pump is dead – apparently there isn’t any fuel. The car cannot move. After a quick words exchange between the chief of the police patrol and the salesman, somebody appears from behind carrying a big metal bucket. Somewhere somehow the last 20 litres were actually ‘dug up’. I really hope it is fuel oil.

We want to get a look at Georgia’s most isolated part, the Svaneti region, sandwiched between the sea and the border with Abkhazia and Russia. This is a region which speaks volumes about any Caucasian state – its isolation is illustrative of the area. We drive up a 140-km road, over half of it turned into a logging road washed down by the waters of glaciers under which it passes. At present it’s in the heat of reconstruction works. On small segments we wait for the bulldozers to dig into the rock and level the road with the caterpillars so we can move on. We enter carved caves which stand for tunnels. We pass over hills and road humps highly unsuitable for our car, a Ford Focus, its guard pretty down. Next to us Ladas, Volgas and other Soviet cars sprightly romp around. This is simply a spectacular region. We drive along the Inguri River which separates Georgia from Abkhazia and empties into the sea. We pass through a 2000-metre high gulch and around us over 4000-metre high still snowbound crests appear. For centuries Georgians have used this region as their refuge, an unassailable natural fortress. When they felt they were losing ground with invaders, they would go up to Svaneti to hide their icons, treasures and even their rulers. Each village developed around a group of stone houses. Each house has its own fortified tower where the family would retreat in case of defence. Georgians boast of never having been conquered in this region. The first uprisings against the Soviets started here, in Svaneti, in the ‘20s, but were quickly quenched in blood when they spread to the rest of Georgia.