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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Golden Fleece of the Hills

YELI, Georgia -- When the water from melting mountain snow slows to a shallow trickle in autumn, villagers in the Svaneti region of northwest Georgia lock up their cows and hike up to the river to prospect for gold.

Village teacher Roland Khvibliani draws a cloth across his small wooden trough and lays it on the bed of the Engury river to catch what he can of the tiny gold flakes floating downstream.

David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters
Although remote and difficult to reach, Mestia has seen its tourist numbers grow.
Gold prices have almost tripled since 2001, but that is of little concern to him: He is performing a ritual that his ancestors carried out for centuries before him. Georgian historians believe it also inspired the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece.

In that myth, Jason and the Argonauts sailed across the Black Sea to the Kingdom of Kolchis -- what is today the coast of western Georgia.

The golden fleece bestowed with regal powers was the equivalent of Khvibliani's cloth: Centuries ago local people would dip sheep fleeces into the river to catch floating particles of gold, then hang them glistening to dry.

Inhabitants of the village Yeli recall how Josef Stalin -- himself an ethnic Georgian whose real surname was the typically Georgian Dzhugashvili -- sent Russian engineers and geologists to the region to mine gold in industrial quantities.

That plan was short-lived. The region was too remote and the underground seams of gold proved too elusive to make it viable.

Prospecting has returned to being a part-time pursuit for local people, though there is much less to be found after a landslide upriver earlier this year sent a cliff into the Engury, blocking the river and limiting the flow of gold.

All 22 of Yeli's households prospect for gold in the river. "Sometimes I don't catch anything, sometimes 2 grams," said Khvibliani, who sells what he finds to local goldsmiths.

The local ethnic group, the Svanis, have been known for centuries for their gold -- and for being fearsome warriors. Svaneti is known as the "land of a thousand towers" because of the stone towers that dot the hillsides.

Built between the ninth and 13th centuries, these towers were to defend against foreign invaders or fellow tribesmen, attacking to carry out one of the blood vendettas for which the Svani were famous.

David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters
Svaneti is known as the "land of a thousand towers" because of the stone strongholds that dot the mountainous landscape.
Each clan owned a tower. When an invasion was under way, they would run out of their houses and climb up the stone steps of the tower. Now, the shelters are used by families to protect themselves from avalanches, and Georgia's government is encouraging a fresh invasion -- by tourists. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is pushing tourism as a way to lift the country out of poverty.

Svaneti is an area few people from the outside world have seen. With five of the Caucasus Mountains' 10 tallest peaks, it is high on the Saakashvili development agenda. The hope is that the year-round snow and unique culture will draw downhill ski enthusiasts and tourists alike.

"In 2006, we hosted between 1,800 and 2,000 visitors, in 2007 -- 10,000. Now we have a shortage of available places for tourists in the local guesthouses," said Nino Japaridze, head of the Mestia district administration.

To overcome the lack of hotels in Mestia, local residents have begun hosting visitors in their homes. Hikers and mountain climbers are especially attracted to Ushguli. At 2,400 meters above sea level, it claims to be one of the highest continually inhabited villages in Europe.

The village of Juf in Switzerland also claims that title but is only 2,126 meters above sea level, according to the Swiss tourism authority.

"I stay with a family, I don't need the Intercontinental. I travel with a tent and can put it up everywhere," said Frank van Reijn, a 59-year-old traveler from the Netherlands.