Powerless: Etseri, Svaneti

After last week’s list of some of What it Takes to live up here in these beautiful but severe surroundings, winter has begun with a vengeance; or perhaps with a view to testing our mettle.

Well, we had a very mild and beautiful autumn, and I actually feel like my household is fairly ready for the long snowy season. We have lots of firewood—logs, cut or split stove-lengths—with a lot of the latter stacked, dry and under cover in our nicely roofed garage. Food aplenty, water running, insulation better than we’ve had it before, especially in the newly renovated upstairs.

The electricity, though, is something mostly outside our control. And it’s been worryingly erratic, since the heavy snowfalls began a few days ago. We try to be ready for the times of lack, with laptop and phone batteries charged, wood for heating when it’s the only choice, and so on. One fridge-freezer and another huge freezer are in cooler parts of the house, so they won’t defrost in a hurry if they’re not running.

The main fridge-freezer is in the warmest room in the house, though, the kitchen-living room adjoining the shop and our bedroom, where our massive workhorse, the famous Svan wood stove, sits doing its marvelous job. So if we found ourselves without power for more than a day, we’d have to think about what to do.

We do have a generator, a little Honda one which I’ve used exactly once here: for power to drill our hole into the village’s main steel water pipe about 150 meters up and away from electricity, when we began renovating our newly bought, decade-abandoned house. We used the generator for about ten seconds and its job was done. So we could be much worse off in the absence of village electricity. But I’m deathly lazy to use the thing at home, and would only do so for the sake of the fridges after a couple of powerless days. It’s never yet come to that.

May it never! The on-again, off-again situation we’re in now does play on the nerves rather a lot, as it’s completely without a schedule. I first experienced this during my two winters in Ushguli, from 2007 to 2009. At the moment, Becho, where I now spend half of my English teaching days, seems to be worse off electrically than Etseri is. It must get more tourists, having that fabulous view of Ushba at its top end to attract them in; and it’s part-way through a main road widening and asphalting program now too. But less electricity than ours? I shudder at the thought.

It’s not just the not having: so much of the world’s population lives without any electricity at all and is fine. It is, of course, the losing what you’re used to, what you rely on and have built your lifestyle around. At least we’re not hooked on the Indian, Turkish or Korean soaps currently raging across the Georgian TV channels! No loss there for my wife and me...

With so much snow suddenly arriving so soon, and more coming down as I write this, I think of the disastrous winter in the late 1980s when about 70 people, most of them children, were killed by avalanches in Ushguli. Houses were snowed in all over Svaneti up to the second floor, and people had to escape as best they could. Ushguli came within a hair’s breadth of being abandoned altogether by its population, which would have turned Europe’s highest village into a memory, a ghost town. No one wants to see a repeat of such a disaster.

That was very late in its winter, however, during the traditional time for such excesses, while we’re just at the beginning now. And in between snowfalls, we’ve had mild sunny weather, which has at least allowed a lot of the rooftop snow either to evaporate or to slide off. (A single normal winter of snow on a roof can bring it down, if it doesn’t either slide or get shoveled off.)

My plea—may it reach the right audience!—is: don’t abandon us, local government! Svaneti’s winter tourism season is becoming much more important than it has been for decades. YOU did this. Don’t let us suffer with such uncertain electricity when you (or your competitors in government...) have channeled such investment into renewing our infrastructure! You can’t have been caught unawares, as sudden as the snowfall is now: it’s late, not early; not a matter of if but of when. If the whole electrical system of Upper Svaneti needs working on; do it! We’re not interested in excuses or silence, we depend on results to survive up here in this altitude and isolation, so far from your “tbili” (warm) halls and corridors. We can’t allow things to go backwards to the terrifying, dangerous, bandit-ridden, chaotic times of Svaneti a decade ago (I remember them well, though I was only visiting the province then, not living here).

Do you want me to start keeping a diary of power outage times? Don’t let it come to that, please!

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at


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


Tony Hanmer

19 November 2015 22:14