My eighteen kilo rucksack feels like a dead weight as I heave it onto my back in the remote village of Djuta (Juta) which is at an elevation over 2,000 metres at the end of a long dirt road that winds its way up the Sno Valley. This is an outpost of one branch of the Kevsur people who migrated here from further east and is built at the junction of two valleys. One of the valleys heads in a north easterly direction towards Chechnya, a restless republic in the Russian Federation, which current geopolitics means is strictly off limits. The other heads south east up into the Chaukhi Massif. We’ve been dropped here by minivan from Stepantsminda and are about to undertake a multi-day trek up this valley and across the Chaukhi Pass (3,338 metres) to the village of Korsha in the province of Khevsureti on the other side of the mountains.
Before the off we tarry awhile at the Juta Guest House, where we indulge in a tar-black Turkish coffee so strong and thick that you could almost stand your teaspoon upright in it. This new and obviously expensive place to stay is built right above the bank of the roaring turquoise waters of the Jutistskali River. Its smart new façade and manicured gardens seem curiously out of place with the rest of the village of rustic wooden houses surrounded by overgrown country gardens containing giant hayricks, all threaded together by muddy streets where pigs and cows roam freely. From the sunny terrace, I spy a man in a nearby garden intently tending to a score of beehives, while another riding a horse disappears up the pathway leading out of the village. We take the same trail some 15 minutes later.
It’s only mid-morning and yet the hot sun is beating down relentlessly as we make our way at what seems like snail’s pace up the steep zig-zag path which elevates us to the lush alpine meadows of the treeless valley. The weather has been rather unsettled in the region over the past few days and the road to the village of Shatili near the Chechen border has been washed away in severe thunderstorms and flooding, making travel there impossible. But today the neon-blue sky is threaded with silvery cloud and a carnival of scents is borne on the slightest of breezes. We soon spot a line of coloured Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze near some buildings which we discover is Zeta Camping, and beyond this the large double-storied wooden chalet of the 5th Season Guesthouse. Loud techo music blares from within which rather spoils the ambiance of the magnificent alpine meadow scenery and we are glad to leave behind it, and the collection of tents of noisy backpackers dotted nearby, which look like the spilled contents of a packet of M&Ms.
The pathway continues to gently climb on the left side of the Chaukhistskali River which wriggles its way through the bottom of the malachite-green valley misty with a dazzling display of summer flowers, their satin-soft petals landing pads for a bewildering variety of droning, buzzing insects. At the valley’s head the tips of the snow-streaked mountains soar heavenwards like a row of thorns scratching at a now misty sky. A man leading a couple of tourists perched awkwardly on horses clatter by us en route to the village of Roshka just over the Chaukhi Pass. It’s possible to take many single or multiday horseback trips in these mountains and with the weight of my pack, I almost wish I was in a saddle!
Near the valley’s end we encounter a vodka-clear stream leaping and bounding its way down the hillside from some distant glacier. One look at the eggshell-smooth boulders slick with algae around which the water is swirling at quite a speed, and it’s evident that we cannot jump it safely with our heavy packs. Donning a pair of plastic Crocs we wade into its crystal depths, the cold water biting into the very marrow of our shin bones.
Not far above this stream is a climbers’ hut where we plan to stop for a snack and we make a beeline up the rising ground towards it. A cool-aqua coloured lake floats into view as we crest a bank of moraine and perched on its shoreline is the makeshift hut of plywood with a red tin roof. It feels good to drop our heavy packs and sit down to feast on homemade cake washed down with a cool Coca Cola. The table is furnished with a large glass jar brim full of periwinkle-blue forget-me-nots. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many. Close by a group of teenage Georgians are busy picking wildflowers, not something that tourists should ever be encouraged to emulate.
It’s early afternoon by the time we hit the trail again and the sun, high over our heads, is a malevolent medallion pinned to the parchment-coloured cloud that is menacing some of the nearby mountain tops. The atmosphere is heavy and oppressive and the humidity tremendous, making the going tough. A duo of brown cows look solemnly at us as we wheeze past, a cloud of dreaded horse-flies bringing up the rear.
Past several enormous rocks used for bouldering we follow the right bank of a small river heading steeply straight up into the ribs of the slate-grey Chaukhi Massif which dominates our field of vision like a giant Baroque pipe organ. The pathway is indistinct and the terrain densely vegetated in places and quite rough underfoot.
Late afternoon we arrive at a point just below a large corrie where the trail climbs very steeply up to the Chaukhi Pass. We are right opposite the imposing organesque monoliths of the Chaukhi Massif which are highly reminiscent of the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. The near-vertical cliffs of this rock climber’s paradise look higher than they actually are (3,842 metres), and up this close and personal, I feel very small indeed. With grandstand views down towards the valley we have just traversed and of the massif which might be transformed into something truly photogenic at dawn or dusk, we immediately set up our tent on a grassy promontory.
Like a pair of eagles in a remote and lofty eyrie we are the masters of all we survey. Nearby a small stream trickling down a tiny gully delivers crystal clear and ice-cold drinking water and the ground is peppered with pretty wildflowers – blue gentian, mauve asters, mustard yellow doronicum, white ox-eye daises, and violet harebells. On a sheltered bank near the stream I spot the leaves of the dwarf Rhododendron Caucasium. Luckily at this altitude a few creamy white blooms still lift their faces to the sky long after those at lower altitudes have withered.
The shadows slowly lengthen and sipping whiskey from our hip flasks, we watch the bruised-blue and sea-silver sky chasing the grass and rock into shadow at the coming of dusk as the cloud above the Chaukhi Massif blushes peach and the rock fades rapidly to chalky-mauve then cold-steel. Stars begin to wink in the firmament, the temperature quickly plummets and we retire to the warmth of our sleeping bags.
Next morning I awake to the glorious sight of the sun creeping over the tops of the snow-streaked mountains. In the valley below, huge columns of mist are slowly churning and dissipating into an azure-blue sky. It promises to be another scorcher.
Breaking camp, a steep climb up a shaly rock face brings us into a huge corrie still dappled with large patches of dirty snow. This area is only passable from mid-June onwards for the few short months of summer. Two routes are available to us, one to our left which sweeps up an arm of the corrie, and directly ahead, a zig-zag path which goes straight up a steep scree slope to the corrie rim. Both lead to the Chaukhi Pass. We choose the latter and after crossing several shin-deep snow patches, the wiry grass gives way to loose scree as we begin the brutal climb. My laboured breathing and pounding heart belies the altitude and the exertion of carrying a very heavy pack in temperatures far higher than we had expected. When I pause, which is often, I feel the blood thumping through the veins in my neck.
After what seems like an eternity we reach a notch in the ridgeline. The rock is razor-thin here and care must be taken not to slip and tumble into oblivion through the cotton-white cloud which is billowing up the ridge face in a stiffening breeze. We sit panting in stupefied ecstasy as the breeze cools our sweaty faces. Like the view through a kaleidoscope, the picture instantly changes when the cloud parts to reveal tantalising flashes of blue glaciers, jewel-coloured lakes, the snow-covered peaks of the Great Caucasus, and endless waves of hills that look as if they have been draped in crumpled green velvet. To the north east are the troubled Russian Federation republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, who few in the West had ever heard of prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and where deadly post-communist conflicts sadly simmer on. To the south east is Khevsureti, where we are headed, famed for its poetry and horsemanship.
Our objective is to find a place to camp beside one of the three Abudelauri Lakes which lie over 900 metres below us, accessed via a long grassy ridge which sweeps down from the Chaukhi Pass. To get to the pass involves an airy scramble along the knife-edge arête between two corries carved by long-vanished glaciers which have bitten deep into the rock. Cornices of snow cling like limpets to the shattered rock in several places, and a head for heights is desirable as we are forced more than once to put hands on rocks to steady ourselves in some very exposed sections.
We eventually descend about 30 metres from the ridge to arrive at the broad saddle which marks the Chaukhi Pass. From here we endure an excruciatingly steep descent of over 900 metres, which zig-zags over loose scree, then stubbly grass which gives way to lush thigh-high vegetation interspersed with rhododendron, the branches of which lie in wait to trap a weary ankle. I am mightily glad of my walking poles which prevent me from slipping.
We’re delighted to find a flat and sheltered spot by some rhododendron bushes above an aquamarine pool, aptly named the Blue Lake, which peeks out alluringly from a mass of contorted limestone. With the tent erected, I sit outside to eat my freeze-dried meal of macaroni cheese where I am serenaded in the warm evening air by the fluty notes of a Great Rosefinch which is perched on a nearby boulder. As the sun slides down behind the Chaukhi Massif, the peaks of which from here resemble a spiny dragon’s back, their outline is etched for several utterly mesmerising moments on the cloud almost touching their tops.
The cold of night falls like a sledgehammer as the Milky Way soars over the crest of the nearby mountains, and warmed by several good slugs of whiskey, I snuggle up inside my sleeping bag.
I wake to shy, slanting sunbeams playing across the limestone cliffs of the nearby mountains that appear to be bearing down on our tiny tent. So picturesque and comfortable is our camping spot that we decide not to break camp, but instead to spend another night here which gives us time to explore the Chaukhi Glacier some 8km up-valley.
Traversing banks of loose moraine and then following a tumbling ice-cold river which lower down is abruptly swallowed by the ground to vanish into some unseen cave system, our exertions are rewarded by the sight of an enormous amphitheatre of barren shattered rock with its crooked finger of ice.
We have entered a roughshod Arcadia of limestone, with colossal blades of grey rock clawing at the sky above the teardrop-silver lake below the Chaukhi Glacier. Known as the White Lake, it's chock full of sediment - ground down rock from the glacier. The tranquility and solitude are immense; the only sounds are the occasional groan and creak of the glacier as it continues its inexorable downward journey, the musical cadence of the nearby river, and the chirping of birds and insects.
The next morning is rather overcast, with low cloud touching the tops of the nearby mountains. It’s much cooler and this might account for the sudden activity amongst the nearby rocks. I spot a flash of brown as something darts across the top of a boulder only to disappear down a hole. My heart misses a beat as I think I’ve spotted a rat, but a little head suddenly pokes out from a gap beneath a neighbouring rock and two beady black eyes stare straight at me. It’s a stoat! In fact there are four of them and our departure is delayed by watching their antics as they circle our camp, with one emboldened individual approaching to within a few feet to inspect my rucksack!
We pause for one long, last lingering look at the Blue Lake as we climb away from our wild camping spot to begin the 8km gentle descent towards the small village of Roshka. Almost immediately we encounter the big brother of the Blue Lake. The hue of copper patina, unsurprisingly it’s named the Green Lake! Soft rain is falling as we follow the track down through the delightful Abdelauri River valley, but this soon abates and sunshine once more floods the landscape. Butterflies and bees dance between dog rose and blackberry bushes and brown cows with clanking bells wander in the lush meadow pastures strewn with a dazzling display of wildflowers. The croaking of crickets rises above the endless background drone of countless insects. The only thing marring this bucolic paradise is the presence of horse-flies that never miss an opportunity to feast on skin not slathered with insect repellent!
We soon spot the rust-red roofs of a cluster of small wooden houses that form the tiny village of Roshka which lies just below the confluence of the Abdelauri and another river. A huge glacial erratic nestled in the centre of the village sports a Georgian flag. Just above the village a new road is being cut through the pristine mountainside to connect an old village that was virtually abandoned during Soviet times. It leaves an ugly brown scar in the velvety verdure. Progress comes at a price.
There are a couple of guesthouses in Roshka, but we decide to make camp above the village in a meadow near a tall stand of sorrel which gives some protection from grazing cattle. From here, the hills towards Chechnya look like pillows of soft green velvet and we can see the tiny honey-coloured houses in the village of Gudani on the opposite side of the valley. We amble down to the village to source some water and find this at a fountain that has been erected in the memory of a young man whose face graces the exterior plaque with ornate Georgian inscription. The natural spring water pouring forth from its metal spout is glacier-cold and refreshing. As dusk creeps over the sky from the eastern horizon, the cattle are driven from the high pastures down towards the village by men and boys on horseback who return our waves with cheery smiles.
Next morning we are driven from our tent by the fierce heat of the rising sun. We hit the trail early and at the village search for a track that will take us down to the road leading to Shatili. No sooner than we begin to follow its sinuous route along the edge of the valley, the path is choked with giant hogweed. The bane of every trekker in the Caucasus, this weed which grows higher than a man, is not something we wish to encounter. It looks attractive with its enormous umbrella-like white flowers which is why it was introduced to Ireland and other places in the nineteenth century by plant collectors and landscape garden enthusiasts. However beguiling it might look it is necessary to give it a wide berth, for brushing against any part of it with naked skin is likely to cause an allergic reaction. Its sap contains toxic chemicals which react in sunlight causing painful blistering within 48 hours. We therefore err on the side of caution and take the much longer dusty dirt track down to the Shatili road.
After several kilometres of monotonous walking during which time only one old saloon car which has lost most of its paint and a man on horseback pass us, the road begins to descend steeply through forest in a series of zig-zags. Just before we hit the Shatili road, I almost step on a Caucasian viper which is curled up alongside the track. It’s apparently rather rare, so I'm privileged to see it even if it does make my skin crawl!
The Shatili road is unpaved and not much busier than the road down from Roshka probably due to the fact that recent flash floods have rendered it impassable near Shatili. This is something of a blessing as its surface is like talcum powder. The road follows the bank of the roaring Aragvi River which has carved a deep gorge. The midday sun is burning as we pound along the dusty track sending tiny lizards scattering in all directions, and we are relieved when the sun slips down behind the nearby mountain ridge plunging some of the gorge into shadow. After several kilometres a jeep honks its horn and pulls up. A jovial Georgian man asks us where we’re going and it happens he is related to the family with whom we are staying in Korsha where he owns the grocery store. That’s the way of things in these mountain villages, where everyone seems to be related to everyone else! He kindly offers us a lift which we readily accept and in no time we are walking up the driveway of the Korsha Guesthouse, an attractive two-storied wooden building surrounded by lush gardens and beehives.
We are shown to our pretty basic room by a lovely lady named Marina who speaks passable English. The guesthouse is a delight, its rustic flagstone dining room furnished with hand-carved wooden furniture, and decorated with local costumes, mounted hunting trophies, bear skins and the stunning artwork of Shota, Marina's husband. The cold beer purchased at the store nearby tastes divine as we toast trekking over 40 km on the small balcony overlooking the gardens where Marina is busy digging up vegetables and picking herbs for our dinner. Georgia is the land of milk and honey, where orchards burst forth with fruit, and every house has its own beehives, livestock, vines and carefully tended vegetable patch, for people still have an attachment to the land - their food is all home-grown and prepared. And divine it tastes, after eating dried food for the last few days! We demolish plates of khinkali, herb soup, crisp salad and cheesy khachapuri washed down with Shota's homemade wine.
After a sound night’s sleep, we are up early to catch the morning bus to Tbilisi which costs the grand total of six lari each. The route from Korsha to the main highway to Tbilisi is not tarmacked, and as our old and very battered bus painted with the Georgian flag bumps along and swings round corners, it contributes to the clouds of white dust that settle on everything in sight. Inside, we are the only Europeans crammed in like sardines among old men, black clad women with headscarves and several enormous digger tyres. There are no seat belts and the fact that the road is bumpy, the driver something of a maniac, and the rear suspension is shot, makes Martin feel decidedly queasy. He is hugely relieved when we hit the main highway to Tbilisi where we make a beeline for the sulphur baths to revitalise our aching muscles!
Soaking in a private bath with ice cold beers, we reflect on an absolutely first class trekking and wild camping experience where we were totally free to commune with nature in wide open spaces unfettered by barbed wire fences, along rugged trails where we seldom encountered another soul during this, the peak season for trekking.
We arranged to be dropped off at Jutta Village by the Mountain Freaks tour company in Stepantsminda for less than 10 euro each. In Khorsa we were accommodated at the Korsha Guesthouse which cost around 15 euro each per night, with the option of dinner which was extra. Our stay was arranged by telephone by a kind waitress named Nino who works at the Cafe 5047m in Stepantsminda.
From Korsha we caught the local bus to Tbilisi which cost 2 euro each and took a couple of hours.
The Chaukhi Massif area is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 3 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99).
Camping gas can be purchased at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi. Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies are horrendous and will bite through thin clothing!
Read our next blog about trekking in Svaneti and watch our film of our trekking trip to Georgia: