From sweetbread in Surami to hammocks in Khashuri, many settlements along Georgia’s E60 east-west highway are known for their unique crafts — now the modernisation of the E60 is threatening to turn them into ghost towns.
Georgia’s E60 highway, the country’s main east-west artery, is undergoing a radical transformation.
A new modernisation project is building new bypasses, overpasses, and tunnels. While this is surely welcomed by the drivers who will save precious on their drive through the country, the towns that now find themselves sitting astride little-used sideroads face economic devastation.
Indeed, as I discovered, combined with the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Georgia’s roadside vendors fear themselves to be on the path to extinction.
Once called ‘the centre of Georgia’, the town of Khashuri is a nodal point connecting Tbilisi with the lush wilds of Borjomi national park to the south-west and the Black Sea coast to the north-west.
Once serving as the junction between two of the country’s most popular vacation destinations, Khashuri is known for its manufacture and sale of holiday items, particularly hammocks and woven сhairs. But now, the town’s central street, once colourful with hundreds of hammocks of different shapes and sizes, is now almost bare.
I found only two vendors in all of Khashuri who were still working, and only one of them agreed to speak to us.
‘We are retired and we don’t even have a car’, 77-year old Mediko Arjevanidze, who sells the hammocks with her husband, told me. ‘We’re trying to sell the leftover things but this week, for instance, we haven’t sold a single item’.
Mediko and her husband don’t craft the hammocks themselves, instead, they purchase and re-sell them, with a profit of about ₾2–₾3 ($0.60 – $0.90) per hammock.
‘This used to be the hammock street’, she said. ‘Now life has just become extremely, unbearably hard’.
Mediko refused to be photographed.
The roads department has announced that there will be a market constructed for Khashuri hammock vendors by the new stretch of highway — as of yet, no opening date has been announced.
Just down the road from Khashuri is the town of Surami. On the town’s northern edge, rows of newly built huts stand along the highway, with women in front of them waving nazuki — a traditional Georgian sweetbread baked in a ‘tone’ stone oven.
Nazuki bread has become a symbol of Surami and some people travel from the capital to the small town of 7,500 just to get an authentic taste.
While traffic once moved through the centre of the town, the new E60 highway now brings traffic past the town’s northern edge. The town’s bakeries have had to relocate to accommodate the new flow of traffic. Tea owns one such bakery.
Originally based in the centre of town, Tea rented a new space for ₾200 ($60) a month when the highway bypass opened. She and her mother work five days a week from 05:00 till late evening, and on the weekends, it’s Tea’s sister-in-law who runs the oven.
She tells me she considers it good fortune that relocation was an option for her. ‘We can’t afford to stop baking’, she said. ‘We’ve been lucky — some people got left with nothing.’
But like nearly everyone else, Tea has suffered from the economic impacts of the pandemic. A reduced flow of travellers, she said has reduced her income by half.
Despite the lower number of customers, Tea and the majority of the other roadside bakers, still spend their days by their ovens, keeping one eye on the road while baking new batches of nazuki.
Nazi Laphachi, 64, an IDP from Tskhinvali, got into baking while waiting for government housing in Tbilisi. A mother of three and grandmother of seven, she supports herself with Nazuki-making alone.
‘The income is about ₾50 ($15) a day, but I have to cover the ingredient costs, firewood, and the rent, so in the end, it’s about ₾30 ($9) per day. It’s good that I have my clients who already know me, that’s what keeps me going’.
Pottery on the Rikoti pass
Further to the west, through the Rikoti pass, is the village of Shrosha, a historic centre of pottery making. But these days, the residents of Shrosha fear their village’s days are numbered. The E60 highway bypass is due to open in 2020 and will skirt their village entirely, leaving them far away from the economically vital stream of traffic.
The pandemic has only made preparations for the coming economic troubles even more difficult.
‘If we previously sold ₾100 ($30) worth goods every day, now after restrictions we sell about ₾20 ($6) worth’, Natalia Gelashvili, who makes pottery with her husband Davit Tkemaladze, told me. Tourists looking for souvenirs, who would spend as ₾300 ($90) at a time, used to be their main clientele, but this year, she said, with tourism paralysed by the pandemic, they’re hoping to sell just enough to cover the rent and production costs.
‘There were over eight hundred families in Shrosha in my youth, and now it’s about 150’, Davit recalled. Most of the families, he said, either moved to other parts of Georgia or left the country entirely.
Almost all who remain in the village today make pottery, and while the government has announced plans for making special markets where people can still sell their wares, Natalia and Davit remained sceptical about the plan’s viability.
‘I’m thinking of buying a van and taking everything to other touristic zones’, Davit said, with Natalia quickly adding, ‘but if we’re all going to die because of COVID, none of this will matter’.
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.