Mountains, Fireworks and Mestia
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
About a 9-hour drive outside of the Capital city Tbilisi, nestled in the striking snowcapped mountainous region of Svaneti lies the town of Mestia, known for its immense natural beauty, seclusion, and a very unique and delicious salt.
No matter the time of year, this place is a gem for outdoorsy types. Hiking, mountain climbing, and even white water rafting, but my favorite part is the ski slopes. As an avid snowboarder, this town is a small slice of paradise to me in the cold months. Though a lot has changed even in just the last year alone, it still holds this charming feeling that you found something special and pure to be explored, maybe some screwed up sense of colonialism. Even to the native Georgian members of our group, it’s strange and foreign. While the entire country of Georgia is about the size of West Virginia and contains barely 4 million people, the region of Svaneti has its own language, spoken nowhere else in the world. One year ago this place had only 2 police cars for the entire town, both of which were 1993 Toyota Land Cruisers. The rest of the vehicles are predominantly Mitsubishi 4x4 Delicas. However, it seems that the locals are capable of whipping just about any car imaginable around these snow-covered meandering trails. (Imagine with me for just a moment an old Chrysler Sebring Convertible fitted with a ski rack).
The slight chaos suits the town in the best of ways. I love that ski village type of feel. There is a feeling of survival mixed with the luxuries and pleasures of life. A celebration of living in harsh and sometimes extreme conditions yet still holding to culture and maintaining civilization on the edge of the habitable zone of our planet. For some people, it’s the beach in a tropical paradise, but for me, it is a spiritual sensation of traveling beyond the tree line into the alpine zone. Feeling the sometimes cruel but awesome beauty of life stretching to reach as high as it can go; climbing from the pools of primordial soup from whence it came.
As part of this planet and life, we humans have done our best to claim this zone. As you reach the top of the mountain, you are greeted by a lodge with smoke wafting out of a bent chimney. A sun deck with groups of people warming themselves with hot wine and Cha-Cha (a national favorite liquor, closely related to grappa). There’s a beautiful camaraderie that exists between all members of your group, spoiled only just a little by the continuous train of Instagram influencers coming up the chairlift. Posing in front of the mountains while staring into the camera. The clothes more fashion concerned than surviving the elements; they quickly get back on the chairlift and look sheepishly awkward as others are heading up with skis that they will actually be skiing on.
I guess the price we pay for convenience is the bullshit that comes with it; the guise of an extraordinary life packaged up and conveniently served in a simulation of a reality you want. To some degree, we are all guilty of projecting our own greatness while supported by the genius of others. I didn’t climb the mountain, I was scooped up by a chair attached to a wire and carried up while smoking a joint. I’m by no means Tenzing or Hillary, but where do you draw the line? Where do you still get to feel the feeling of exploration and adventure without risking everything? Even the town, while tucked away and adorably small, is always at risk of losing the rough edges that grant it that special feeling of authenticity as newer and bigger hotels are built.
However, we don’t know what this new year will bring. On this visit, we were blessed with being in this haven for New Year's Eve. The cuddly feeling of having drinks under heat lamps by small decorative bonfires, walking through the middle of the street slipping and skating along on the ice, all magnified by the festivities of live music and children throwing fireworks around and scattering.
Our intrepid group found ourselves in a Karaoke bar, stuffing our faces with copious amounts of amazing Svanetian food and alcohol of all sorts. I had bought more fireworks and, like others, had brought them into the bar/restaurant and leaned them against the wall by our table. For those of you who have never experienced Karaoke in Georgia, it’s a bit different than the west where it's more for comedic value. These people mean business and business was booming. After a few shots of liquid courage, I got up and did a number, which changed things up from the standards that had been played throughout the night. I came out of the gate with an Eminem classic followed by some Red Hot Chili Peppers. As things progressed, more singers came up and the music got louder and people, including our group, were dancing on the tabletops.
At exactly 1 minute to midnight, the music cut out and everyone made their way in a surprisingly orderly fashion out on to the patio, bringing their arsenal of fireworks with them. And there we were, a loud group of locals, tourists, and expatriates from all sides of the world, Launching wiffleball bat sized roman candles over our shoulders like rocket launchers on a patio of a karaoke joint. It’s a new year and I’m with some of the most wonderful people and very glad to see that the adventure seems to be far from over.