"Now you will see our Sicily," Inga says. Dato's Lada isn't up to the trip into Georgia's most remote mountains, so we reluctantly wave good-bye and squeeze into a creaky Soviet military jeep driven by a silent young man called Zaza. The region of Svaneti represents the inaccessible, the untamed, the last link between modern-day Georgians and the tribes of bandits who fought one another here until Soviet times. It's billed as the only part of Georgia that never fell to conquerors, which explains the distinctive light features and large, almond-shaped eyes of the Svans, whose 4,000-year-old spoken language is incomprehensible to other Georgians.
The route to Mestia, the largest town, is not for the weak of stomach. Zaza stoically negotiates hairpin turns and spine-shattering potholes on a road where a few feet—at times, a few inches—separate us from a 1,000-foot plunge into a frothing slate-gray river. As Brian massages a part of my wrist he says is a carsickness pressure point, I cradle my stomach and wonder how any destination can be worth this.
Four hours up, the dense pine forest and Lada-sized rocks give way to meadows where long-haired pigs graze. Yellow rhododendronsin the hills fill the car with a delicate perfume. Rounding a bend, we come upon Svaneti's guardian angel—a wall of mountains that literally makes me gasp. I ask to stop so I can get out to stare, and take in the thin air.
Svanetian towns showcase Georgia's most dramatic architecture: 92-foot-tall stone watchtowers with square windows at the top that look out over the valleys. Dating back as far as the 11th century, these towers were built to protect villagers from avalanches and enemies. Each family owned one, and together they rise in a silhouette that reflects the mountain skyline.
In recent years Mestia has built a new hospital, a high school, and a sports academy. But Nana Nijharadze, our Svan guide, worries that there's still not enough to keep people from leaving. As a director of culture and tourism in Svaneti, she's thrown herself into full-time promotion of the region, even bringing in aid money from Europe.
On our second day, she crams us back into Zaza's jeep and we spend the day tooling around in even more remote villages. Coming back, we stop at a concrete-block building—a tiny auditorium. The house is packed, but the children in the front row scoot aside and, in sign language, urge us to take pictures of the plywood stage. People of all ages are singing and doingdances that depict battles and love conquests. The performances are intimate and spirited, but the real concert comes when we're invited backstage for a celebratory dinner.
At a long, candlelit wooden table, sunburned men and a few women loudly pass around meat pies and pickled tomatoes as a boy makes sure everyone's glass is filled with homemade vodka. A tipsy man in a gray felt cap gets up. "To our concerts," he cries, and everyone cheers.
Another man stands: "To the great powers of St. Mariam and all women!"
"To those who have left us in earthquakes, floods, and war!"
"To peace in Svaneti—if there is peace here, there is peace in all of Georgia!"
The drunken toasts and cheers run into one another; then, over the cacophony, an open, flat voice rises. Down the table another starts to sing, and gradually everyone joins in a dissonant harmony that changes subtly with the introduction of each voice. The music quickens, and an old man beckons to a girl in a long black skirt. The girl demurs, but he insists, and the two begin a stomping, whirling duet that brings the group to its feet, dancing and clapping.
We stay for hours, and finally hug everyone good-bye. A few locals squeeze into our jeep, and as they launch into another folk song, I forget to feel carsick. I'm too taken with these people who have continued to sing throughout all the wars and invasions and avalanches. Gazing at the velvet sky, I settle into the rattling that has become a familiar, even elemental part of travel here. I kind of hope they don't fix the roads.