Sweating in the Frost: Svaneti

A friend wrote recently from Ushguli that the temperature there was minus 36 degrees C. Minus 36! I had not known that such temperatures were possible in Georgia outside of a new Ice Age, even in Europe’s highest village at the height of winter. Clearly, while much of the rest of the world is complaining of the heat, Svaneti is lagging behind the trends, as it so often seems to. Late with roads, with the first car, with electricity, with the first TV...

It wasn’t that cold, but still cold enough, when I found myself required to walk most of the way home to Etseri from Becho, 10 km away, recently. One of my school days there, and transport between the two has been irregular of late, the usual minivan-bus driver laid up with something, the rest of us forced to find alternate wheels to Mestia or stops en route. The outward journey was easy, in a neighbor’s Niva (qvelgan miva, or “goes anywhere”)... But he’d be returning from Mestia only after 4 pm, and the school closed about two hours before that, meaning a long wait at the bus stop. I decided to walk, thinking that the exercise would warm me up.

I was right. For a while, in Canada thirty years ago and more, I’d not had a running vehicle, and from my parents’ acreage to work was about a 10 km bike ride—at minus 20. Cold enough, but again, I was generating my own heat, and protecting my lungs with a scarf. No worries, eh! Now, as I set off from Becho school with a fortuitously timed hot staff lunch in my tummy, well wrapped and layered, I was again soon much warmer than standing still would leave me.

The road is in good shape, plowed of much snow, although there’s still a good layer of it covering the cement. But it was an easy walk, if a longish one. Only two single-kilometer stretches gave me a respite in cars; the rest was all on foot, the traffic sparse so late in the afternoon. Having once walked all the way from Etseri to Mestia in a day, 28 km (although that was in summer), and then on other days to Ipari and Ushguli and finally back the same route- an over 100 km round trip!- I knew that this I could also do.

It was beautiful in all the snow, and very quiet too, and I took the chance to make a few photographs as I walked, camera always with me in case Ushba had decided to peep out from behind the common clouds. Fences almost completely covered in white gave a simple, stark, haiku-like feel to the photos, which are best in simple black and white, having hardly color of their own anyway. Not a thousand words per image in these stripped-down cases—just a bare seventeen syllables: enough to sum it up, anyway. You could be in any winter country in the world; nothing screamed out “Svaneti!”- no watchtowers. Fine, it was enough to satisfy the purist in me.

Neither wind nor new snowfall assailed me; there was just the huge landscape, and the quiet, the still. My thighs felt it all the next day, a bit, but I’ve not had enough such exercise this winter, compared to the summer’s long walks, so this was a reminder that I must soon get back in shape. The ache was more of that pleasant kind than a pain. It might be a rare necessity to do this walk amid the snow, but at least I know that I can still manage it. Truth be told, I welcomed the solitude, too.

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

04 February 2016 21:22