Spring has come early this year. The valley of Svaneti is dressed in exuberant green. I come here for the fifth time, but I have never seen it so strong, so full of life. I have come by marshrutka, jeep, by ox yoke and on foot, and next time I’ll come on horseback. I have seen it under meters of snow, awakening in early spring, under rain, in shoe-swallowing mud, and in the full bloom of summer. The Caucasian shepherd dog, against which I defended myself with a stake pulled out of a fence, now only slightly raises his muzzle, sniffing for my scent, and then lays its head back onto its paws and goes on sleeping. The little boy, who at our first meeting wanted to be a jazz musician, and a second time a tour guide, speaks more and more beautifully in English – in the school of Ushguli they pay great attention to this, as well as to Russian, for they are educating future emigrants who must stand on their own down there in the world –, and he knows less and less what he’s going to be. He’s maturing. The ever-joking old man in a Svan cap, who last year was shoeing an ox, now gives me his hand, laughing. This year, the school and museum director already admit us into the school, where twenty teachers educate forty-eight students from the three small village districts, but she still does not let us take pictures either here or in the museum. There will come a time for that as well. The brown mare belonging to the border guard officer now has a colt. They are building a new bridge next to the old one. Judging from the unorthodox methods of preparing concrete, they will go on building it for a good while. Under the bridge, the Inguri constantly rushes down from its source near the clouds.
Ushguli is the highest inhabited point of Europe, if you draw the borders of Europe on the basis of where the twelve-star flag is put on border stations and public buildings. On this basis, Georgia is Europe, and my native Hungary is not. In the narrow valley of Svaneti along the Inguri, it was possible to expand only upwards. For three thousand years, every inch of arable land found its owner. From Ushguli there is no more upwards, the ever-snowy border mountains rise here. On the other side lies Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia, and the Elbrus. The treasures, icons and codices saved from the enemy invading the plains also marched up the valley, and the ones that were not reclaimed by the owner after the invasion have remained here. The three village districts of Ushguli are dotted by seventh- and eight-century fortress towers. The most massive of which, in the middle village, houses such a rich museum that would be the pride of any great city. On the sides of the towers, satellite dishes, in the towers, LCD monitors, on which the little Svans study where they would have to go to win their victories, as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Next to the towers, mud mingles with cow dung.
When you first come here, you feel the weight of time, the waning, the gravity that draws the Svan youth with the promise of an easier life down to the cities of the plains. Now I also see the vitality and the strong social network, which keeps and brings them back here, the promise and delight of a full life in the thousand-year-old valley. That the spring has come so early this year, and the valley of Svaneti has dressed in such exuberant green, helps a lot for sure.
Mze Shina Ensemble: Djin’ Veloi From the CD Ushba (2011)