It’s a bright, hot day in the nearly abandoned village of Kichkuldash, and its last remaining citizens are making lunch. Maro, a stout, stern-faced woman in her 60s, is preparing great piles of cheese beside a wood-fire oven.
Valeri, her husband, is already on the booze. He’s stirring up a 34-gallon barrel of chacha, a home-brewed brandy, somewhere around 75 percent alcohol by volume. His nose is already turning a traffic-light red. Outside on the porch, a bear skin hangs drying. Valeri hunted it, illegally, himself.
What does bear taste like, I ask him.
“A bit like mountain goat,” he replies, taking another swig.
Valeri and Maro have one of the world’s most spectacular backyards. Their small complex of houses and barns backs onto the sweeping foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The view has been theirs alone since 2011, when their last neighbor left town. This is Svaneti, a rugged region of Georgia whose emerald green valleys are carved by rivers that snake off toward the Russian border.
Its people, the Svan, once welcomed hikers and thrill-seekers from all over the Soviet Union. Georgia was one of the USSR’s premier holiday destinations. But post-Communist political and economic turmoil has emptied towns like Kichkuldash. Svan culture, millennia old, is in danger of vanishing as well.
Maro serves lunch at her home in Kichkuldash, Georgia. All photos by Sean Williams.
Svaneti has been an outdoor adventurer’s mecca for centuries. It is situated on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range, whose highest peak, Shkara, towers on the horizon. Just north of the Russian border is Mount Elbrus, Europe’s tallest mountain.
During the Communist era, Georgia was known as the “Riviera of the Soviet Union.” It welcomed 3 million visitors annually. People from all over came to traipse Svaneti’s trails, many of which were created centuries ago by intrepid cattle farmers. They left a network of concrete turbazas—tour bases—littered along the countryside.
But a booming tourism industry seemed unlikely immediately after Georgian independence in 1991. Financial mismanagement and political division led to wars with the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The country’s first post-independence president was ousted in a violent coup d’etat. Tensions with Moscow led Russia to hike energy prices, leaving the Georgian economy in tatters. By 2000, only 387,000 people visited Georgia.
Valeri, whose broad shoulders and handlebar mustache give him the appearance of an Eastern European Charles Bronson, joined the Red Army in 1972 but never saw battle. His brother was killed in the Abkhazian conflict in 1993, which cleaved away a huge chunk of Georgia. Abkhazia remains a de facto independent nation, propped up by the Kremlin and off-limits to its former compatriots.
It was in the wake of the war, when many fled Abkhazia, that Kichkuldash reached its highest population: around 50. In the winter Valeri made his own skis—he still does—and spent entire days with friends whizzing up and down the snow-covered slopes beside his home.
This remote region is unique from the rest of Georgia. Their Svan language, though written in the Georgian script, is completely different from the country’s national tongue. It contains few vowels and is notoriously complex. “When you can hear the river running,” one local jokes to me, “you can understand Svan.”