The Caucasus Mountains represent the dividing line between Europe and Asia, reaching higher than the European Alps (Mount Elbrus in Russia – 5642m) and stretch from the Caspian Sea in the east all the way to the Black Sea in the west. While a few countries share this mountain range, it is the Svaneti region of northwest Georgia that has the highest concentration of big mountains. It was this fact that drew my interest in the area but I had also consistently heard from other travellers that Georgia had some of the most unique and beautiful trekking in the world and was still quite undiscovered compared to other places. The more I heard about the country the more it intrigued me – it is a true melting pot of Europe and Asia with the unique culture and cuisine reflecting this.
The town of Mestia is the focal point of the Svaneti region, and even has a small airport allowing flights from the capital city of Tbilisi, but alas they were all sold out when I tried to book so instead I had to catch the night train to Zugdidi and then catch a mashrutka (minibus) to Mestia the following morning. Arriving quite exhausted late in the morning, I allowed myself the afternoon to relax and get set for what lay ahead. My plan was to do a four day trek from Mestia to Ushguli, renowned as one of the best in Georgia. I was already entranced by the setting – jagged white mountain peaks surrounding the town including the iconic Mount Ushba, elevation 4710m. The town has a very authentic and medieval feel to it with cattle, horses, pigs and dogs all wandering the cobblestoned streets and dozens of the distinctive stone towers that are found throughout the Svaneti region. These towers were built from the 9th century and reach about 25 metres in height, used by families to stay safe from marauding armies (including Persians, Turks, Mongols and Russians). Mestia is enjoying a renaissance in recent years as the outside world slowly discovers this beautiful area. In an effort to attract more tourists, a new ski resort has recently opened and the summer months are popular for trekking of course.
The following morning I awoke to cloudy skies which was a little disappointing as the high peaks surrounding the area were obscured, but as I made my way out of town and into the hills the striking colours of autumn more than made up for it. Every tree seemed to be a different shade of yellow, orange, red or green. The path climbed up the side of a ridge for the first few hours before dropping into the next valley, allowing partially obscured views towards Tetnuldi at the far end of the valley, elevation 4858m. It was at this scenic viewpoint that I ran into Bert and Mattias from Berlin while sitting down and eating lunch. They were probably in their mid to late twenties and friendly to chat with. I had also been hiking near a guy with blonde hair and had waved hello from a distance. Somehow I knew that over the next four days I’d get friendly with these people given there were not many hikers on the trail at this time of year. It was mid October, the end of the hiking season.
Descending into the next valley, a black dog appeared out of nowhere and began following me, racing ahead to lead the way but always circling back to check I was following. He was friendly but only wanting brief pats, more interested in guiding me than receiving any sort of reward. This next valley had plenty of very small villages, most of the buildings being in various states of disrepair from the passage of centuries gone. The goal for this first day was the village of Zhabeshi, and along the way I’d walked with several young children on their way home from school. They had practised their English on me and I’d been happy to play along, talking slowly and asking the usual easy questions to answer. One boy tried to convince me to stay at his parents’ guesthouse that night but I didn’t want to lock myself into anything without first seeing it. All the while the black dog was still with me, having now walked the entire length of the valley. I wondered if he had a home because if he did I had seriously led him astray.
I found a guesthouse to stay in at Zhabeshi and thankfully it included dinner and breakfast as there was not a single other place selling food or drinks in the area. It is hard to describe how primitive these villages are – it is quite obvious that these people have been almost completely cut off from the outside world until recent years at least. Everything is old, and I mean REALLY old. No technology here. While some guesthouses had Wifi, this was pretty much the only sign that things had progressed in these villages since medieval times. While wandering around outside I had bumped into the blonde guy I’d waved to earlier in the day. He was Felix, from Stockholm, in his mid-twenties. Bert and Mattias had showed up at the same time too and the four of us got talking while the daylight faded on the surrounding mountainsides. Once again the setting was incredibly beautiful, this village basically set at the foot of Tetnuldi.
I had arranged for breakfast to be served at 7:30am the next morning but I sat at the table in the cold waiting for over an hour. I was expecting an elaborate breakfast to be presented to compensate for the wait but alas it was a fairly simple affair. These people spoke literally no English and it was incredibly hard to tell them I wanted to get going early. I finally stepped outside and headed up a steep mountain ridge on the side of the Tetnuldi massif which also had a new ski resort being built on its higher slopes. The weather was much better this morning and the views back towards Mestia were a highlight, the towering Mount Ushba now clearly visible, rising sharply above everything else, the burst of white contrasting nicely with the clear blue skies. Once again the orange and red autumn colours left me in awe and I was pleased to see that this stable weather pattern would remain for the rest of my time in Svaneti. It was perfect hiking conditions and I was certainly glad to be avoiding the more crowded summer months where guesthouses would actually fill up – I had the entire sleeping area to myself the previous night.
I passed a couple from Israel halfway up the hill before I arrived at the top where a new chairlift ran overhead. The trail then dropped down into the next valley towards another small village called Adishi. About a kilometre from this town I passed a group of about six burly men all walking beside four big oxen joined together by yokes, pulling an old wooden sled along the trail loaded with logs. One of the men in the rear was texting on his phone while walking and I couldn’t help but marvel at this display of old technology meeting new. I also got chatting to another young man sitting beside the trail. His name was Luka and he came straight out and asked me if I could provide capital for him to build a new guesthouse. I said I was sadly the wrong person to ask for this but he didn’t believe me, telling me how wealthy Australia is and how he wanted to move there but couldn’t afford the airfare. I had to concede that it must indeed be hard to muster up an airfare living in a remote mountain village like this. He tried to get me to stay at his parents’ guesthouse but once again I didn’t commit. I continued walking, thinking about how the advent of the internet must breed dissatisfaction amongst young people living in remote areas such as this, no matter how beautiful their immediate surroundings are. The grass is always greener.
Read the full article on Page 58 of Outer Edge Magazine Edition 55, available for free HERE!