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Svaneti

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Undoubtedly the highlight experience of my 1 month travels in the Caucasus countries was trekking in Svaneti. The isolated region is located in northwestern Georgia within the Great Caucasus Mountain Range, which extends from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and forms an almost impenetrable barrier between Russia (Europe) and the Middle East (Asia). The peaks in the Great Caucasus easily exceed the Alps, with Mt Elbrus in southern Russia the highest in Europe (5,642m). Georgia’s identity is inextricably linked with the mountains, which dominate the entire northern length of the country. This is particularly relevant for Svaneti, as the mountainous landscape has instigated the development and preservation of a unique culture, architecture and unwritten language that is unintelligible with Georgian. While tourism in the region is relatively new, Svaneti is no longer off the beaten track: after Tbilisi and day-trips from the capital, the four-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli is the next most obvious destination for travellers to Georgia. The trek is relatively easy, as you stay and eat at guesthouses (considerably lightening the load required to carry) and only spend 3-6 hours on the trail each day (if you possess a modicum of fitness). It was probably my favourite multi-day trek I have ever done, because of the phenomenal scenery and social atmosphere.

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I caught an overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi for time efficiency, meeting Israeli Inbal and Australian Alicia en route to the station. Coincidentally, Inbal and I were allocated adjacent upper berths in a 4-person compartment, which was fortunate because our Georgian roommates were unable to communicate in English. While the family of 4 slept on the lower berths and had various relatives visiting throughout, Inbal and I discussed our life stories and complained about the ailments of the Soviet-era train. We rendezvoused with Alicia when we arrived at Zugdidi in the early morning and caught a mashrutka (shared minivans – the constituent form of public transport in the Caucasus) to Mestia. Meeting Alicia was a touch nostalgic, as she has taken a gap year between her Bachelor and Master degrees at the University of Melbourne to travel the world at the age of 21 – which is exactly what I did in 2013!

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Mestia is the de facto capital of Svaneti and is surprisingly brimming with guesthouses and restaurants. Its incredible location surrounded by pine forested mountains and the presence of Svaneti’s idiosyncratic stone towers throughout the town has ensured that Mestia retains its charms despite the development boom. The stone towers, some of which are up to 6 storeys high, were originally constructed between the 9th and 13th centuries as a defence mechanism for the local population. Hundreds remarkably survive and are scattered throughout Svaneti’s villages and valleys, representing the most fascinating vernacular architecture I’ve ever seen in a rural setting. After a bombastic museum guide conducted a bizarre explanatory session of the elements and purposes of a traditional Svan household by manically spitting English phrases at the group, I climbed to the top of one of the towers, albeit with some difficulty due to the constrained heights.

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To warm up for the 4-day trek, I hiked up a slope adjacent Mestia along a route cleared for a cable-car installation (catering for wintertime skiers) as the lady at the tourist information centre promised magnificent views at the top. After traversing the steep terrain for over 2 hours, I reached the end of the cable-car… only to notice another cable-car to a higher summit. I realised then that the unhelpful lady had neglected to mention that I needed to catch a taxi to the start of the second cable-car and then hike up. Since I was still below the treeline, I wasn’t able to enjoy totally unobstructed views of Mestia, but in the fading hours of the day I needed to descend. I decided to take a different trail to back to Mestia, as the trail below the cable-car was treacherously steep and the road for vehicular traffic was too convoluted. However, my trail abruptly ended in the forest, forcing me scramble through the bush, follow farm fences, jump said fences and generally travel in a downward direction. Although I incurred numerous scratches, I successfully returned to Mestia before darkness and thankfully without inciting the wrath of any guard dogs. When darkness did arrive in Mestia, I was very satisfied to have booked one of the only guesthouses with an electricity generator. The power was out in Mestia all night, ruining many travellers’ preparations for the trek to Ushguli (but importantly not me!).

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I commenced the trek in brilliant sunshine, the first of several consecutive days of astonishingly dry weather (storms were forecasted). I departed Mestia in the late morning a couple of hours after Inbal and Alicia, so the plan was for me to hike at a rambunctious pace and catch up in the afternoon. That objective was immediately thwarted as I met a lovely, though slowish Israeli couple and was obliged to hike with them for most of the day to avoid appearing rude. I was amazed by how many Israelis were trekking from Mestia to Ushguli; more than every other nationality combined. It was Israel’s summer holiday season (late September, strangely) and apparently Georgia is firmly on the country’s travel destination list. The trail started with a minor ascent through pleasant grasslands and deciduous forest. When we reached a clearing, we enjoyed fantastic views of snow-capped mountains, including the twin peaks of Ushba. Most of the afternoon was spent hiking at a consistent level with clear views of the farms and tiny villages in the valley below. We stopped at a small household on the trail and drank beer (well, just me) in a cute garden below a stone tower. With the imminent threat of rain, I powered on from the Israeli couple when we descended to the valley floor (never to speak with them again). I eventually arrived in what I thought was Zhabeshi, the typical endpoint of day 1, and was ushered into a guesthouse. The household consisted of 3 generations of non-English speakers, including the family patriarch who was very enthusiastic about my arrival. I was treated to khachapuri for afternoon tea, which is bread baked with a humungous amount of salty white cheese. The patriarch decided that it was an opportune time to whip out his homemade cha-cha, which is Georgia’s beloved liquor produced from grapes and with 40-70% alcohol. After 4 shots were imposed on me (as a 6’3 young male, it would be rude culturally if I didn’t accept these offers, annoyingly), I stumbled out of the household in search of Inbal and Alicia, quickly realising I was drunk by 5:00pm. A young kid cycled up to me and began chatting in decent English, as we walked past his school, apple orchards and small paddocks. He led me to Inbal and Alicia’s guesthouse in the next village… which was actually the he real Zhabeshi! Inbal announced that she would be returning to Mestia the following day, so the plan became for me to met up with just Alicia in the morning and hike with 2 other Israelis (!) staying at their guesthouse. I returned to my guesthouse for dinner… even more khachapuri with tomato, cucumber, buckwheat and plain bread. The patriarch exploited my presence in the dining room by pouring us another 3 shots… I was completely blotto by 7:30pm, giving me no choice but to retire to bed!

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After struggling to stomach yet another enormous khachapuri in the morning, with cucumber, tomato, buckwheat and plain bread on the side (hmmm haven’t we been here before?), I departed the guesthouse much later than intended. The patriarch insisted that I take a shortcut up the mountain and skip Zhabeshi, which in the absence of a common language I had to comply with in order to avoid offence. I reasoned that Alicia would’ve already left and I’d catch up to her on the trail. The route for day 2 to Adishi was very short at just over 10km, although it was predominately uphill. Since rain was expected, I decided to hike very quickly and dispense of all politeness when I inevitably caught people on the ascent – no time for chit-chat. The scenery was splendid as the forests I hiked through, at higher altitude than the previous day, radiated autumnal colours in the morning dew. Within short time, I was overtaking people on the trail, including a trio of Israeli navy operators who failed to demonstrate hiking etiquette by neglecting to stop on the side to let me pass (and thus became my enemies through to Ushguli). I decided to start counting the number of people I passed for the day and clocked off at 18*.

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However, Number 17 and 18 admirably caught back up, perhaps motivated to listen to my tunes playing on Spotify or recognising that I’d be a top bloke to hang out with for the rest of the week. Since we were approaching Adishi, I decided to let Number 17 and 18, otherwise known as British Helen and British Joe, enjoy their achievement as we hiked into the village together. Helen and Jo were on the second leg of a 5 month trip, which would later impressively include a 5 country swing through West Africa. We arrived at an astonishingly early time of 12:15pm, driven by our shared desire to avoid the afternoon rain (which never came). Fortunately, the discovery of a “bar” (essentially just a shack with a table and chairs on the lawn outside) above the village placated our fears of boredom for the afternoon. Adishi clings to the slope of a high valley and is inaccessible by road. The tiny village has suffered numerous natural disasters in its history (landslides), resulting in its abandonment. Families only returned to the village in the last 5 years to cater for the sudden boom in tourism. The villagers mostly leave Adishi in the winter months for the lowlands, although some stay to protect the structures from the enormous snowfall that occurs. The village features numerous crumbling stone towers, creating superb views of Adishi with forest on the opposite slope. We aboded in a guesthouse with lovely views of the valley, hosts that spoke English, hot showers and Wifi! We met Israeli Ada, another inspiring youth on the trail who at 19 was travelling through Georgia for a month solo and had already completed a couple much tougher treks. His 2 hour conquest of the Zhabeshi to Adishi section made our effort seem glacial. Alicia soon wandered into our guesthouse (we strangely didn’t cross paths), completing our crew for the next 4 days. The Israeli sailors eventually dawdled in too and commented to me, in a somewhat condescending tone, that I appeared to be “in a hurry” on the trail and that they were just enjoying “taking their time”. No doubt they were trying to save face, since they’re supposed to be elite physical specimens after 10 years in the military; but the truth is I just absolutely obliterated them. Despite the tension (they provided lousy company), the crew enjoyed a sumptuous vegetarian spread, the highlights of which included Russian salad (diced vegetables and eggs in a peppery mayonnaise and dill sauce) and oily eggplant salads. We retired to bed embarrassingly early again at 9:00pm, hibernating from the near 0 degrees temperature.

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After boasting of my exploits on the trail at dinner, perhaps a little excessively, it was decided that I would depart later than the crew in the morning and try to catch up during the day. It was the only moderately difficult day of the trek, taking 5-6 hours from Adishi to Iprari depending on detours. I eventually left the guesthouse approximately 1 hour later at 9:24am, allowing enough time for Adishi to empty of tourists and increase my opportunities for prey. I was delighted to pass an enormous group of oldies (read: 40+) close to Adishi and within 30 minutes I had already exceeded to previous day’s count. The first section was spent hiking parallel to the valley’s river, and then descending briefly to the valley floor where it widened significantly with marshland and exposed rockbed. The scenery was superb, with the valley’s slopes covered in tapestries of golds, oranges and reds. But the landscape became truly epic when the trail rounded a bend to reveal an enormous glacier directly before us – definitely a WOW factor moment! When I reached the river crossing, I encountered an enormous conglomerate of trekkers – I was amazed by how many people there were because Adishi had seemed quiet. While most people paid a fee to local entrepreneurs to ride a horse over ($6), I saw the Israeli sailors slightly upstream of the crowd and on the other side – they had crossed the river on foot. I’d been indecisive about what my approach would be, but needless to say that was quickly resolved when I spotted them. I hiked way further upstream than necessary, trying to find a span that would require minimal contact with the (literally) glacial water in terms of both depth and duration. I was eventually satisfied and went staggered through, barefoot. While I suffered intense pain (I really hate cold water), I successfully made it across without slipping (saving my passport and electronics in the process).

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Immediately after the river crossing was the only genuinely tough section of the trek: a steep and unrelenting ascent to Chkhutnieri pass (2,700m). Perfect terrain to reel in stragglers. I knew I’d catch the Israeli sailors quickly, but even I was surprised they’d barely progressed 20m higher in altitude before flopping down in exhaustion. The count became a little flawed, because I re-passed at least a dozen people who had caught up to me at the crossing by taking the horse. Nevertheless, I loosely counted “new faces”. At the pass, I left other trekkers, wallowing pathetically in their depletion, as I detoured to a lookout with unobstructed views of the glaciers on both sides of the ridge. I lunched completely alone in this unbelievable position, humbled by the scale of nature. I returned to the trail and began the long descent to the next valley, apprehensive of catching up to the crew on the decline, even with occasional bursts of jogging. I arrived in what I thought was Iprari at around 3:50pm, only to message Alicia and discovered I’d marched straight past it! Inspiringly, I sculled my premature celebratory beer, strapped my backpack back on and faced the near 90-degree angle slope to return to Iprari. I was reunited with the crew 20 minutes later on the terrace of our guesthouse, with panoramic views of the valley. Overall, I had overtaken a whopping 52** people for the day (and I was never overtaken myself of course), but failed dismally in my objective, with the crew having arrived in Iprari approximately 20-30 minutes earlier than when I stormed through (the first time). They even had time to stop for mushroom soup – seriously talented trekkers. The crew informed me that the Israeli sailors had been spotted in a vehicle and were abandoning the trek – dejected, defeated and utterly humiliated. We laughed away the day’s drama with beer and delicious Georgian wine on the terrace and over another fantastic banquet (with flesh!).

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We hiked together for the first time on the fourth morning of our trek and we were blessed with outstanding weather: clear blue skies and warm temperatures. The three hour trail to Ushguli was relatively easy, although the inevitable onset of soreness began to commence. The trail through deciduous forest was along the side of a slope, providing beautiful views of the river valley below. After descending to the dirt access road, we passed through a series of tower strewn villages before arriving in Ushguli, which is truly one of the most spectacularly located villages imaginable. Ushguli is nestled between grassy mountains and has a backdrop of an imperious glacier and snow capped peaks. The village is composed of a multitude of stone towers, quaint guesthouses and innumerable cows. Tempted by the glorious weather, Ada, Jo and I decided to continue our trekking endeavours to the top of a mountain beside Ushguli. We completed the agonisingly steep 800m ascent in 90 minutes and flopped onto the summit, recuperating with stunning views of glaciers and mountaintops. In the evening, we celebrated our achievements with beer on our guesthouse’s front lawn, followed by the best meal of the hike and more Georgian wine.

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We returned to Mestia the next morning by jeep through muddy conditions, passing many unfortunate trekkers completing their trip in the rain and cold. We had a somewhat lazy day recovering from the trek, although we did watch a remarkable movie called Dede. The film was released in 2017 and received recognition at festivals all over the world, so it is now shown several times a day at a hotel in Mestia for tourists. The film depicts ancient Svan customs and was predominantly filmed in Ushguli with locals. We didn’t really have an appreciation for the content of the film prior to arriving ans were rather surprised by its very bleak depiction of life in contemporary times for women in this ultra paternalistic culture. The film basically suggests that village Svan women are essentially modern-day slaves required to satisfy the expectations of their fathers and then husbands. Excellent film and very informative of the local culture, but a little confusing as to why such a crifical reflection of Svan society is so heavily promoted to foreigners. Highly recommend.

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Aside from the mostly superb homestay food, I also enjoyed some rather delicious Georgian and Svanetian specialties in Mestia. On my first night, I ate probably my favourite meal in the country: bbq chicken smothered in ajika sauce (spicy paste made from chillies, garlic and spices) and tashmijabi, a stodgy Svanetian specialty. Tashmijabi is basically mashed potatoes mixed with an enormous amount of Sulgani cheese, which creates a stretchy tangle of indulgence. Another starchy favourite of the Svanetian highlands is chvishtari, which are cheesy fried cornbreads and are eaten with breakfast. Kubdari is probably the region’s most famous dish, flakey meat pies with chunks of beef and spiced with coriander seeds and fenugreek seeds.

The mountains and villages of Svaneti are an absolute must-see for any trip to the Caucasus. In fact, from my experiences, I would say it’s the only totally unmissable destination in the region. The trek from Mestia to Ushguli is surely one of the few places in the world that boasts unbelievably impressive scenery and beautiful, unique architecture. It was clearly a very special place to visit, and I was lucky enough to spend it with a great bunch of people.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Georgia photos

Posted by Liamps 22:00 Archived in Georgia

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