One for the Road: Svaneti

There is a tradition, I've deduced by many years' observation. It requires that the worst roads in all Svaneti be in its capital town, Mestia.

This was certainly true under Eduard Shevardnadze, when the whole road up from Zugdidi was a disaster. Six hours’ minimum from there to Mestia! The actual bit inside Mestia left you no driving choice but first gear it was so rough, so resembling a former river bed.

Huh, now you can do that same stretch in three hours, thanks to Mikheil Saakashvili's energetic infrastructural renovation program for the whole province. He had the whole thing cemented, and at least the bottom third paved in tarmac as well. This included the main road into and through Mestia, and it now goes as far as the turn to the new Tetnuldi ski resort between Mulakhi and Ipari. Citizens of Ushguli, there's hope for your bit yet!

However, however... come winter, although the main road is plowed well of fresh snow, this seems to have to not be the case inside Mestia. There, perhaps, some local government or other is laughing all the way to the bank on the strength of the sideways-spent town road clearing budget. Meanwhile, snow builds up, is pressed down nicely into thick layers of ice under car tires and feet, and the ice itself thickens over the course of six months of freeze and snowfall. But not in nice straight lanes, no, God forbid! No, the places where cars must dodge each other take on new ruts.

While the lowlands are already relishing spring's arrival, global warming has yet to become fashionable up here. So, in February and March all that rutted Mestia ice changes its state from iron-hard solid to granular particles resembling sand. One to two feet thick, mind you, so if you try to drive through it, best of luck, and you're fortunate indeed if you don't need another vehicle to pull you through, I don't care WHAT you're driving.

As for the new rooftops... their two feet thick tons of ice and snow are just waiting for a warm enough day to start carooming down three stories. How would you fare on the ground? You'd simply be crushed flat, as efficiently as if by an avalanche in some wild mountain place instead of in the middle of a town of several thousand. Oops, bad design, sorry! Too late. Enough material here for another whole article.

I thought that being a Canadian, learning my driving in bad winter conditions, would make me ready for the same season's driving in Svaneti. But those few weekends when my dad took me to my high school parking lot and let me try the wheel in really icy conditions in a big, safe open space... fun while they lasted, but here we are in reality, where what the authorities DO with the snow and ice makes all the difference.

Look. There's a rut for each pair of wheels on either side of an average width car, going up from the highway to my house and beyond. The ice between the ruts, and outside them, is still half a foot to a foot thick, solid. You'd need an axe or something similarly hard and heavy to make any impression in it at all. I can DRIVE up and down this road, held nicely in place by the ruts, but the last several yards, backing or nosing my big 4x4 into the garage? Forget it. So, I've been parking the car a hundred yards or so down, at the school crossroads, hoping that gathering bovines in daytime won't try to spar with it and show off the hardness of their horns and strength of their necks. These days of above freezing sunny weather have yet to make the smallest dent in that thick ice... so I wait. Spring will come, eventually.

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 1350 members, at

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

Tony Hanmer

02 March 2017 18:08