In the village ruled by animals: A semi-abandoned Georgian story
To my left, two bulls are engaged in some horn- thumping fight. A herd of cows watch on. An elderly, semi crouched lady stands in her front door throwing rocks at the beasts. A failed attempt to break up the fight. Nervously, I observe my surroundings. The dirt-street ahead has just a solo cow, eyeing me with an unsatisfied glare. It’s just a cow. I carry on, protected by a Caucasian Shepherd dog. He runs away as the horned creature advances at him. I turn back, make my way through the herd of sheep and goats blocking the road. Past the grunting well-fed pigs, half brown from playing in the mud-filled potholes. The road ahead becomes blocked by another herd of cows returning home from the fields for the night. Dusk was a bad time to come for a walk around this village.
It feels like a scene right out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The once occupied buildings now taken over by the seemingly independent farm animals. Cows, horses, sheep, pigs dramatically outnumbering humans. A semi-abandoned village. In a semi-desert landscape. In an isolated part of South- Eastern Georgia. Why does this village exist?
I’m a curious person so as I ponder this question, my day-time wanderings lead me to explore an abandoned house. I jump as a sheep comes bounding out the front entrance. A young foal strolls suspiciously out of, what once was, a room and eyes me from the front porch. Giving me “the look”. The one the animals seem to have mastered in this place. A look of “go away human, this is our village now”. I notice a cow peeking at me from around the side of the house, the same evil eyes. I back away towards the dirt road to the soundtrack of a steady, calm grunting. An old horse carriage is providing shade for a litter of sleeping piglets.
Opening my eyes on my third morning in Udabno to this same evil-cow-glare I wake to every morning, I set to asking- why? how? What is this place doing here?
An isolated semi desert landscape with a poor water supply does not seem like the ideal location to set up a village. Although in the eyes of the Soviet Union it was perfect. Being no other settlement nearby, they needed to set up a village to help protect against invasion. They relocated villagers from a far distant corner of Georgia: Svaneti. A land of lush green, snow-capped mountains, ancient traditions and strong culture. A land so different from the previously uninhabited semi desert emptiness of what became Udabno- meaning ‘desert’.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant no more resources being poured into this small village. People fled. Leaving behind their agriculture to those who remained. Their houses abandoned.
So what is the future of Udabno?
Tourism. One thing on this desert village’s side is a nearby tourist attraction.
David Gareja Monastery was abandoned under Soviet rule but since liberation has been re-inhabited by monks. It is also open for tourists. Looking out from the hillside over the arid landscape in South Eastern Georgia, the Monastery has rocky views, gleaming different colours which vary with the sunlight. On the other side, thousand-year old painted caves overlook an endless vast land of Northern Azerbaijan. This impressive area is only accessible along the little dirt road through Udabno.
The potential of Udabno has been noticed. Basic accomodation and a cafe/ bar have emerged. Many travellers stop by on route for Khachapuri: a Georgian cheesy calorie explosion, or some homemade Georgian wine. Some stay the night and experience the village for themselves. The increase in tourist numbers in the area is being noticed.
Late one night, a drunk monk comes stumbling through the door. After generous offerings of red wine at the monastery he has decided he needs to sort out his “tourist problem”. The situation went from conversation, to arguing, to a knife-wielding intoxicated monk, back to arguing, downgraded to conversation and finally sorted with some Chacha and dancing. Everyone was friends. Proof that the nation’s famous home brewed moon-shine solves any problem.
Tourism may be able to save this semi-abandoned village from complete abandonment or increasing poverty but what about the side effects: it will change the community. An area with such little previous exposure to other cultures. The locals are fascinated and interested in tourists but there’s a way to go to find a balance between the village’s Georgian culture and increasing international cultural diversity.
Some fast heaving footsteps around the dorm make me wonder who is going for a run at this time of night . There’s cows doing laps in the darkness. As it seemingly calms down, I make my way onto the dirt street. They return, adult cows sprinting up and down the road past me. Some confused locals wander out of the bar up ahead. Hugging a flimsy fence that I feel could save my life, I make it to safety inside colourful brick walls of the Polish-run bar. Udabno’s only nightlife scene. I have yet another crazy cow story, to be told with a backdrop of my subjects doing sprints past the door. The animals will always rule, no matter which direction this village takes.