Dirt inside, waste outside
Mountain guides will advise you to rest in „Bethlehem Hut“. It was built in 1931-1940, 3656 meters above sea level, and served as a meteorological station. Now the building is a shelter and can contain up to 80 climbers.
The shelter is composed of six m2 rooms with bare walls and ceilings. If you lose something under a bed, there is a chance you will never find it in the pile of garbage. Four people can live in the room, paying 50 GEL each.
The outside camping area is enough for 100 tents. A night costs 10 Gel. There is no better choice; sometimes, the only place to camp is near the giant landfill.
„Toilet is outside, in the yard. In blizzards, you need a protective belt to go there and back.“
The two-cabin toilet is always occupied, and visitors often choose open defecation behind the giant rocks. On sunny days, when white-shining „Bride of Ravines“ looks down the city of tents, oxygen-deprived air is filled with the poisonous odor of feces.
What do mount-climbers think?
Since December 27, 2018, Mkinvartsveri has been a part of Kazbegi National Park. Katrin Tevdorashvili, founder of the travel agency „Georgia Insight“, says the landfill in the protected area frightens visitors and creates a negative perception of Georgia in general.
„Our visitors often reconsider reaching up to Mkinvartsveri after they learn of the shelter. Indeed, shelters in Europe are not much comfortable, but at least they are tidy. Then, after descending from the mountain, they demand to go back to Tbilisi immediately. The main priorities are a toilet, bigger kitchen, and the clean area“, – Says Katrin, who sends more than 20 groups to Mkinvartsveri every year.
Tourists and guides we met in „Bethlehem Hut“ avoid speaking on the record. They do not want to spoil the relationship with the owners and the administration of the only shelter. However, off the record, they indicate the lack of attention from owners and the overall parlous state of the shelter.
Guides who spend more time in the shelters than tourists experience an additional significant problem- potable water. Every morning they wait for the ice to melt and pour water from handmade pipes. On top of that, mountain guides recall several instances of dysentery.
„I think the government should intervene. This place is a source of income for its owners; they should spend a part of it on environmental protection“, – Koren Bhamra, a British citizen who stayed in Georgia due to the pandemic and wants to visit as many places, as possible, including Mkinvartsveri in September.„Of course, I would not expect a comfortable shelter so high, but garbage and toilet situation should be improved. I think the administration and the government ignore the problems. This peak is important for Georgia; they should protect the unique environment“, – says Koren.
In search of a solution
One of the hut visitors offers an affordable solution to the administration off the record: Tourists bring the food with horses and then let them go back unloaded. Since the payment is already made, visitors can load horses with the garbage left by earlier visitors and send them to Stepantsminda.
„A mountain climber should feel the social responsibility to carry their food waste with them and not pollute the environment“, – Tengiz Ghanishashvili, leader of the camping club „Phoenix“, visits the hut every year.
I've seen countless places in this country, and none of them are as polluted as „Bethlehem Hut“.
Ghanishashvili thinks cleaning the landfill will be expensive and require vast physical resources. Therefore, government and administration should work together. He says campers are willing to join the process voluntarily.
„When tourists see a clean area, they will not pollute it as well. Owners should take care of the lavatory and the interior of the hut. There are feces all along the path; who would want to walk there? It damages the image of our country“.
Otar Japaridze, who started guiding tourist groups on Mkinvartsveri in 2004, thinks that one-time waste disposal will not resolve the issue. If the place is not cleaned regularly, one season will be enough to cover the area with waste again.
„The income from the camping area should be spent on waste disposal. The state should assist in terms of finances and management and then establish control. Owners should take care of the lavatory and kitchen; waste disposal requires a centralized control with regulations and sanctions, as it is in protected areas“.
„If „Bethlehem Hut“ makes the visitors pay a fee, they should have an obligation to manage the waste accordingly“, – says Giorgi Sulamanidze, the director of Lagodekhi Protected Areas. In the national park, they have been handling the issue of waste management using different programs. For example, they use horses to bring waste from the shelters above systematically. Giorgi Sulamanidze explains that protected areas administrations are obliged to have „waste management specialists“ in staff.
„Bethlehem Hut“ is in private ownership, but the area outside is state-owned. Therefore, proper waste management requires a designated program to be established.
„Bethlehem Hut“ area was cleaned three times. In 2004, locals helped German and Swiss climbers to dispose of 2 tons of garbage. In 2014 Georgian National Tourism Administration financed the disposal of 9 tons of waste. Last year Agency of Protected Areas disposed of 20 tons of waste using helicopters. In July 2019, USA Chargé d'affaires Elizabeth Rood visited the mountain and alerted offices of state.
Davit Tukhareli, the administrator of the „Bethlehem Hut“, says they promised the Chargé d'affaires to take care of the lavatory, but the pandemic hindered their plan.
„The shelter does not receive enough visitors and income to restore it and build composting toilets“.
What was possible then became impossible
Tukhareli often complains that even the redecoration of the building is impossible, as bringing materials up there will be too expensive, and they only have water in spring and summer. On the other hand, the same re-equipment was feasible in the 1940s. Old heating pipes and radiators can be seen on the landfill.
The administration says systematic waste disposal is impossible due to the price of helicopter rental – 45 Euros per minute. Therefore, Davit Tukhareli asks the government to help:
„We need alerting banners indicating the fines for pollution. In addition, protected areas representatives should establish control“.
Tukhareli considers another option – building a large cubicle where tourists can leave the garbage and pay for it. Shelter administration takes the responsibility of emptying the booth.
Before the pandemic, the shelter was a profitable asset for its owners.
„The shelter is always full from June to September. In addition, they have a camping space. It generates a profit of 150000 GEL a month. Still, the owners only changed the old roof and windows. The new roof already started leaking“.
Even though the shelter is located on state-owned land, visitors directly pay the administration. Davit Tukhareli explains this is the price of the kitchen and electricity. Besides, they share the shelter with campers in a blizzard. In reality, a 30m2 kitchen can only contain 12 people.
Owners of the hut
„Bethlehem Hut“ has seven owners. It was founded in November 1997 by Beno Kashakashvili, Datuna Rakviashvili, Saba Kiknadze, and Giorgi Kirikashvili.
In March 2010, Irakli Ugulava and Zviad Beglarishvili bought 25.5% of shares from Kiknadze, Rakviashvili, and Kashakashvili. Saba Kiknadze also sold 5% to Gela Otarashvili. Zviad Beglarishvili was appointed a director.
Currently, Datuna Rakviashvili owns 10% of the stakes. He was the Chairman of the National Security Council of Georgia from 2016 to 2018. Giorgi Kirikashvili still owns the 10%. Saba Kiknadze, the owner of the 15%, is also a founder of „Caucasus Travel“. He served as a director of the Department of Tourism and Resorts in 2004-2006.
Benedikte Kashakashvili, mountain climber, guide, and rescuer, owns 9% of the shares. Gela Otarashvili owns 5%.
Zviad Beglarishvili is a 25.5% stakeholder and the director of the hut. He is a director of „Joyland LTD.“, „Joyland+ LTD.“, „Enjoy+ LTD.“, and “Geoland Travel LTD.“
Irakli Ugulava also owns 25.5% in „Bethlehem Hut“ and stakes in „Joyland LTD.“, „Joyland+ LTD.“, „Enjoy+ LTD.“, and “Geoland Travel LTD.“