After Ushguli, the Enguri flows westward across gorges and steep valleys. Svans, an ethnic subgroup of Georgians, have lived in these mountains since antiquity; their name is mentioned in the writings of the Greek geographer Strabon in the first century BCE. Their language, which belongs to the indigenous Kartvelian family, comprises Svan, Mingrelian, Laz and Georgian, and is now considered endangered, with only 30,000 speakers. Isolation is common on these slopes. While Svaneti’s capital, Mestia, a small town of roughly 2,000 inhabitants, has, like Ushguli, been turned into a tourist hotspot since a ski resort opened in 2011, most of the mountainous villages are agrarian communities untouched by outside influence. One of these communities is Ieli. A small village harbouring several old tower-houses, it’s a 45-minute October 2020 • 45
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