We begin our final trek in Svaneti in the north west of Georgia, famous for its medieval stone towers which each stand sentinel over a cluster of balconied houses enclosed by defensive walls. The Svans are an ethnic subgroup of the Georgians and have their own unwritten language. Alluvial gold was once won from the mountain streams around Mestia by using sheepskins, giving rise to the ‘Golden Fleece’ legend. In the past the Svaneti region had something of a reputation for lawlessness; people were unused to outsiders and with numerous brigands roaming about, trekkers were sometimes robbed. But all that changed during the investment of the Saakashvili years, the region has opened up, and homestays have sprung up in even the remotest villages to cater to passing tourists. We are headed for Ushguli over 60km away from Mestia, the commercial hub of the region, and will be stopping at rural homestays en route, so we are carrying lighter packs for this multi-day trek.
We arrive in Mestia after a highly memorable journey from Tbilisi to Zugdidi by sleeper train which dates from the Soviet era. The temperature in Tbilisi was in the low-40s and incredibly humid, so it was hotter than Hades to begin with, but perishingly cold in the hour before the dawn and no blankets were provided, just a thin paper sheet! Our private carriage had long couch seats upholstered in claret velvet, and the narrow corridor was patrolled by a colossal uniformed lady with her hair scraped back in a bun. It was like something out of a Cold War spy thriller and at any moment I expected the door to our carriage to fly open and James Bond to be standing there holding a pistol! The three-hour journey from Zugdidi seemed far longer than it was in a cramped, breathless and very uncomfortable marshrutka which sped along the bendy mountain roads in the mother of all thunderstorms.
Mestia is a curious blend of old and new, with all the tell-tale signs of recent development in its architecturally ‘innovative’ new buildings, some of which have been funded by the EU. This has arguably started to erode its distinctiveness and its main street has begun to resemble any other honeypot Alpine ski resort with its trendy après ski bars and expensive clothes shops, although the back streets where animals roam freely retain their authenticity. However, unbridled development throughout Svaneti could end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg, as the region has been inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage Site List because it is an exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses and this is what draws many tourists.
The morning is muggy after the thunderstorms of yesterday and a feeble sun picks at a slit in the ashen cloud rumbling about the valley as we head out of town. The steepish climb over the first pass traverses a mixture of meadows with knee-high wild flowers and wooded glens with impressive views down over the braided Mestiachala River and soaring peaks of the surrounding mountains gripped firmly by clutching fingers of glacial ice.
After climbing some 500 metres we are greeted by the sight of another long valley dotted with tiny villages which sweeps up to the jagged snow crested peaks of the High Caucasus. The milky-grey Mulkhara River runs through it. We head for Chvabiani, one of the farthest of these settlements.
The trail weaves its way past villages bristling with tall towers, some of which show signs of imminent collapse. We pass right through Zhamushi where many of the old houses with wooden balconies are virtually falling down and some are mere shells. Bees buzz round scores of hives, pigs roam through the narrow village lanes, chickens scatter in all directions, and cows low in the flower-strewn meadows. It’s idyllic, but farming here is hard work for there is little mechanisation, and we spot a man and woman busy building a hayrick with pitchforks, while others are hoeing vegetable plots enclosed by wooden palisade fences.
It’s late afternoon and threatening rain when we finally cross the roaring Mulkhura River via a rickety wooden bridge and walk up a stone-walled muddy lane to Chvabiani where we are staying at Maia’s Guesthouse. Her son greets us warmly in passable English and we are led into a gated compound which includes a double-storied house with a large wooden balcony. A crumbling tower stands in a nearby field beneath which cows are contentedly grazing. Maia, a big hearted woman with a broad smile and a pair of mischievous brown eyes, brings us cold beers and in faltering Russian we manage to communicate. She informs us that dinner will be served in an adjoining building at seven. I warm to her at once.
After queueing for the only shower (there’s a family of four and two other couples staying here), we head for the dining room. Maia is in ebullient mood and immediately seizes on me to help her make kubdari (bread stuffed with meat, onion and Georgian spices), the signature dish of Svaneti. I’m soon handling the dough like a pro and she’s very impressed. The kitchen is filled with giggles as an assortment of her young grandchildren arrive to see me helping her.
Dinner is scrumptious and plentiful, made from home grown grains and vegetables and includes a herb-based soup, home-produced cheese, salads and my kubdari! Maia’s son arrives with some homemade cha-cha, the local firewater, which is something like grappa. This is a special variety, flavoured with honey from their own beehives. Never one to refuse such wonderful hospitality, with a hearty ‘Zazdarovje’ I knock back a small glass of the amber liquid. Maia fills it immediately with a wicked grin, and I imbibe once more to her squeals of laughter. I then point to an empty glass and suggest that she has one too. Arms linked, we knock back our glasses with great merriment. ‘Another’? No, Maia has other plans for me, as she leads me from the house by the arm across the darkening yard towards a cattle shed. She fetches a small stool and motions me to sit down. I then realise that I’m about to milk a cow for the first time in my life!
The docile animal is brought forward and taking an udder in each hand, Maia shows me what to do. Jets of milk shoot forth immediately into a bucket as she rapidly and rhythmically pulls on them. She makes it look easy, but it most certainly isn’t and all my efforts are virtually in vain as I manage just a dribble in the bottom of the bucket much to Maia’s amusement! I leave her to it, and slope off to bed, head full of cha-cha…
It rained heavily in the night and the morning dawns cool and grey and the nearby mountains are snuggled under a thick duvet of white cloud. After a hearty breakfast of porridge, bread, cheese, honey, fruit and salad, we bid a fond farewell to Maia and her son and begin the ascent out of the village for the 13 km trek to the next village, Adishi.
The trail that climbs steeply for over 700 metres through forest up to a dirt road servicing the new Tetnuldi Ski Resort isn’t well-marked and we stray off it more than once into slippery deeply runneled ground and dense thickets of rhododendron. Soft rain patters on our jackets and a million tiny raindrops shine like jewels on the horse-heal (Elecampane) growing in the meadows in the forest clearings. My left leg begins to give me some discomfort due to a suspected trapped nerve and I’m glad when we hit the dirt road just down from the ski station which is still being constructed.
By the time we climb a further 200 metres to reach the meandering trail that will take us from the road down to Adishi, the sun has made an appearance bathing the wet landscape in brilliant light. The rich meadow pasture all around us is a dazzling, buzzing insect carpet full of white ox-eye daisies, candy-pink snakeweed, scented lemon lilies, pink pyrethrum, mauve geraniums, flame-orange marigolds, speedwell blue forget-me-nots and saffron horse-heal.
You don’t really see Adhisi, a remote village which is virtually cut off by snow for around six months of the year, until you are almost on top of it. Perched on a sloping hillside above the Adishchala River, I count around ten towers sprouting from amid the red corrugated roofs of nougat-coloured stone houses. It looks picture postcard perfect set against the backdrop of cloud draped mountains with a watery rainbow shimmering overhead.
We find Elizabeth’s Guesthouse at the bottom end of the village, a large, somewhat ramshackle but characterful two-storied blue painted wooden house, the front of which is dominated by scores of small windows. Many guesthouses seem to be run and named after their female proprietors, for in Georgian society women have always had the role of both breadwinner and housewife. Elizabeth, our very affable hostess who speaks some English, shows us up an incredibly steep and rickety staircase to a room with bare floorboards on the second floor containing a large, sagging double bed, two single metal bedsteads and an enormous ancient-looking wardrobe. There are even made up single beds on the wide landing outside our room and the place is packed to the rafters with at least a dozen other trekkers.
Downstairs on the veranda where the dinner table is being set, a small black lamb is skipping about and seems to enjoy being the centre of attention among several other trekkers. However, it soon disgraces itself by peeing all over the floor! None of the Georgians bats an eyelid, but one or two Europeans look on aghast! These village folk are used to living cheek by jowl with their livestock and they aren’t very fussy about hygiene. With only one shower in our part of the building we have to wait to wash as seems to be the norm in these homestays.
Dinner here is excellent consisting of a hearty soup containing huge pieces of tender chicken, followed by bread, mixed salads and potato fritters with herbs, washed down with cold Georgian beer. It’s dark when we retire to our room. From our window we spy the mere sliver of a moon soar from behind the nearby hills, and after the noise from neighbouring rooms abates, we drift soundly off to sleep.
I’m awoken by the loud lowing of a cow. The unsettled weather of yesterday has passed over, there isn’t a cloud in the unbelievably blue sky and it promises to be a scorcher. In one corner of the yard outside is the very rustic-looking kitchen where Elizabeth's aunt and grandmother wearing ankle socks, aprons and headscarves are busy cooking over a wood fire, the smoke of which perfumes the still morning air. Breakfast is delicious and I demolish a great doorstop of cheesy khachapuri (the best by far of those we have sampled), fried potatoes, homemade cheese and yoghurt and a tasty salad with herbs, washed down with a homemade fruit kompot.
The 20km trail to the next village, Iprali, begins near Elizabeth's house and runs up the valley parallel to the river. To walk through Adishi’s narrow maze of streets where pigs, cows and chickens roam freely amid a jumble of dilapidated houses with wonky wooden verandas is like stepping back to medieval times.
As we walk along the valley, the views back towards Adhisi are magnificent, while ahead, the dazzling snow-capped summits of some of Svaneti’s most significant summits fill our field of vision: Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain, over 5,000 metres high; Ushba, dubbed the Matterhorn of the Caucasus because of its distinctive spire-shaped double summit; the pyramid-shaped Mount Tetnuldi. We can see the beginning of the route up the ridge that we have to pass over to reach the neighbouring valley, but first we must cross the Adishchala River.
Elizabeth told us to look out for her brother who has a horse on which he will convey us across the river for a couple of euro. He soon hails us as we approach the rushing milky grey river which is coming straight off the Adhisi Glacier, a huge wall of sloping ice which dominates the end of the valley. With my backpack and walking poles safely stowed on the saddle, I mount the horse and Elizabeth’s brother hops on behind.
The horse wades slowly into the swiftly flowing torrent, carefully negotiating the river cobbles that lie below. I’m glad that we didn’t have to wade this river as the water is freezing, fast flowing, and at waist height in its deepest section.
Both safely across, we begin the 500 metre climb up to the top of the next ridge. It’s viciously steep in places, gruelling in the heat and humidity, and the horseflies are pestilential. But the bird’s eye view of the Adishi Glacier with its rushing waterfall and the peaks of the Caucasian Mountain chain are absolutely stunning. I am aghast at the mountains’ raw physicality. Serrated fins of rock thrust up from gleaming glaciers and great fingers of ice like arthritic hands claw their way to the verdant valley bottoms.
After a short rest we begin the very steep descent towards Iprali. My left leg is now incredibly sore and I find the gradient punishing as we plough on downwards through glorious flower-strewn alpine meadows to the Khaldechala River.
Suddenly, a huge slab of snow and ice detaches itself from the Zaresho-Khalde Glacier and tumbles at great speed down the mountain in clouds of ghastly white before crashing into the valley below. The sound, a gut-churning rumble, reaches us shortly after the event and the silence that follows is spine chilling.
Although the terrain is benign, a grassy pathway for most of the way, I’m making a real meal of it and the thought of hobbling on to Iprali is unthinkable. So it’s a relief to spot the Khalde Guesthouse, literally the only un-abandoned house in a crumbling old village, which is run by one of Elizabeth’s cousins and has a reputation for selling good cold beer! Fortunately, the old lady who runs it, clad in a black headscarf and long black dress, has a room for us. Her kindly husband whose face is the colour of tanned leather, lights a wood burning stove to heat up some hot water for us to take a much-needed shower.
The beer taken on the patio outside tastes divine and I enjoy resting in the cool evening air as the sun slips down behind the nearby mountains. As dusk falls, we eat dinner with a few other trekkers – Austrian, French, Bulgarian and Russian - who are excellent company. The food is good too - the usual fare of soup, khachapuri, a variety of salads, fried potatoes and homemade cheese, and we sit around talking until quite late, toasting trekking in Georgia over numerous glasses of cha-cha.
Next morning, I’m sipping Turkish coffee at the breakfast table worrying about whether or not I can make it the 15km or so to Ushguli with my sore leg, when a delivery man pulls up outside. Half an hour later we are driving down the dusty dirt road to the valley bottom in his battered old jeep en route to Ushguli.
For a small fee he has dropped us right outside the Guesthouse Kachari, a large white wooden building at the top of the village surrounded by fields with a spacious garden in front and the monastery of Lamria with its distinctive tower on a nearby hill behind it. Our double room is very basic but spotlessly clean and typically there is one bathroom shared between several other guests.
Ushguli, located at an altitude of 2,100 metres, is a community of four villages (Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi and Murqmeli) located at the confluence of the Enguri and Shavtskala Rivers. Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, towers over these attractive settlements with their iconic towers, home to some 70 families who live in the highest continuously inhabited villages in Europe. The area is snow-covered for six months of the year, and the road to Mestia is often impassable; the area’s remoteness has helped to save it from the unwanton development that is beginning to blight Mestia. The authenticity of the villages are the reason they are an integral part of part of the Upper Svaneti UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are an increasingly popular day trip from Mestia.
Our guesthouse lies at the top of Zhibiani, a maze of narrow winding streets running between honey-coloured stone houses with crooked verandas sporting ornate wood carvings. The houses, some of which are still pretty dilapidated, are built right above the Enguri River which flows from the enormous glaciers at the foot of Mount Shkhara.
The pace of life is slower here; old men sit chatting outside their homes; oxen and pigs wander along the muddy unpaved streets; an old woman is washing dishes in a tin bath in her garden and men are digging potatoes and making hay in small fields surrounded by wooden palisade fences. The smell of wood smoke perfumes the air, there are beehives in the gardens and piles of wood chopped ready for winter. It feels timeless and idyllic. But signs of development are creeping in here too, with the building of several enormous new guesthouses which resemble Swiss chalets and which stick out like sore thumbs.
There isn’t an awful lot to see or do in Ushguli and one day here gives ample time to visit a very interesting new museum which is spread over three floors of a renovated defensive tower. We’re more interested in visiting the inside of one of these iconic Svan towers than in the displays of icons and other religious paraphernalia displayed inside. Nearby is Queen Tamari’s Castle, a ruined medieval fortress and there is also a small privately run ethnographic museum displaying everyday artefacts from the region. Evening falls softy over the mountains above the village turning their peaks vermillion and blood red as we feast on a superb home-cooked dinner in the garden in front of our guesthouse.
Next day after an enormous breakfast, we walk down to the old bridge between Chvibiani and Chazhashi where marshrutkas leave for Mestia. There are over two dozen people - locals and tourists - haggling with several drivers over the fare. Amid the crowd a rather precocious young boy on horseback is barking orders at everyone in broken English and Svan. For a good price we, along with half a dozen other trekkers, manage to procure a lift from a lovely old local couple in their aged Mitsubishi Delica van, which has incensed the boy and the drivers who have missed a fare!
The 60km journey back to Mestia is along a truly horrendous unmade road that weaves its way through the Enguri Gorge with its fast flowing river. There’s no air conditioning in the van, it’s hot and stuffy so the windows are fully down and the interior is filled with clouds of choking talcum powder-fine dust thrown up from the road. Potholed and washed out in sections this road has claimed many lives judging by the number of alcohol bottles left in certain places where people have stopped to pay their respects to those who have met an untimely end. Our driver is sober, careful and obviously values his old vehicle, so there is no death-defying overtaking on blind corners! We eventually hit a new concreted section of the road which is being improved all the way to Ushguli. Doubtless this will be welcomed by local people as it will facilitate more tourism. But one can’t help but feel that this will not be wholly beneficial judging by the creeping commercialism in this popular tourist area.
Back in Mestia we sip a gorgeous glass of Saperavi wine on the small balcony of the Hotel Old House. As the sun sinks lower in the sky turning the distinctive peak of Mount Tetnuldi salmon-pink, we muse on our trek through the Svaneti region which surely ranks among the best we have undertaken anywhere. In a world of sanitised travel, this trek was an unforgettable Technicolor extravaganza of genuine experience where it was possible to truly interact with local people. And the landscape, with not a trace of barbed wire anywhere, was unspoiled, pristine and uplifting. It will be some time before the sight and sound of an avalanche, the deafening chorus of insects such as we never hear any more in Western Europe, and the settling sun turning the peak of Georgia’s highest mountain blood-red, fade from my memory.
We took the first class sleeper train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi which you can book online beforehand (about 12 euro each way per person). From Zugdidi we caught a marshrutka from outside the railway station for a few euro each. From Ushguli we shared a lift (along with several other trekkers) to Mestia with a local couple for about 2.50 euro each, but marshrutkas run from the bridge in the morning and late afternoon. At Mestia we caught a mid-afternoon marshrutka back to Zugdidi Railway Station in time for the sleeper train to Tbilisi. There isn't much in the way of food or services at this station which is like something out of the Soviet era. There is a bag drop if you want to venture downtown.
All accommodation (hotels and home stays) were reserved online using Booking.com before our departure. Be prepared to pay between 90-100 lari (30-33 euro) per night for two people including meals at homestays, more for hotels. Don't expect too much, as the standard is not similar to what people are accustomed to in most parts of Europe.
We ate mostly at Cafe Laila in Mestia which serves a variety of Svan dishes. The food and service is so-so, but its has a good vibe, is very popular with trekkers and features live Georgian bands.
The Svaneti area is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 9 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99). In addition, excellent map sheets showing day hikes and sections of a number of trails from Mestia produced by the Svaneti Tourism Centre Union can be obtained at the Svaneti Tourism Centre in Mestia. We found the estimated distances to be slightly out on some of these though.
Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies are horrendous and will bite through thin clothing!
Read our other blogs about hikes and tours around Stepantsminda and our multi-day wild camping trek across the Chaukhi Massif. Watch the video of our treks in Georgia at: