A week in the Caucasus.
Visiting Svaneti in Georgia is synonymous with hiking – as soon as you tell someone of your outdoors addiction, they’ll ask you, ‘Have you been to Svaneti?’
The mountainous area lies in the North West of the country, wedged between the occupied state Abkhazia and the less-visited mountain state Rocha, and every day in Svaneti is an adventure: it starts the moment you decide to travel to the area, whether you’re planning to reach it through the winding mountain roads or on the small propeller plane.
1. Damsels in Distress
The tales of hitchhiking in Georgia are as tall as they are true. Hitching a ride in a country known for its incredible hospitality is famously easy – and probably more comfortable than riding marshrutkas, Georgian minibuses.
It took me about 15 seconds to snatch the first ride of the day in Kutaisi, and it didn’t take me much longer to find one in Zugdidi either. The Russian woman piloting her fully-packed silver Toyota had blonde hair and blue sneakers; she was small but seemingly tough, with a humourless but gentle voice. Her terrier wagged his tail at me as I pushed my backpack on the backseat next to him.
As we climbed higher and higher on the snaking mountain roads, her nervously overtaking hay trucks that seemed to be tipped to one side under the weight and me wondering at the spectacular scenery behind my window, I told her that she was my second female driver of the day. This is quite rare hitchhiking; women are more hesitant than men to pick up hitchhikers, and in a lot of countries, Georgia included, women don’t drive as often as men.
‘Yes, maybe women are not so good with cars,’ she said. ‘I don’t know anything.’
‘I know, I hate to be a stereotype. Like I’d love to be the kind of strong independent woman that knows how to change a tyre and everything… But I actually don’t.’
‘At least I know how to do that!’ she laughed. ‘But here you don’t need to. Always the third or the fifth car stops and people help. They think that we are women, we can’t do it ourselves!’
Little did I know our un-empowered conversation acted as foreshadowing; an hour later, as a road-raged Georgian overtook her too close for comfort, she swerved and the car jumped over the curb, rattled and shook.
Yep. We blew a tyre.
We got out of the car, and it took probably a whole ten seconds for an oncoming car to pull over behind us. The three Georgians helped my driver dig out the spare, took out the lug nuts, removed the tyre, put in the new one – like a well-oiled Formula One team. And then they were gone with just a nod for good-bye.
Well, too bad we had blown a front tyre – and since the spare was significantly smaller than the rest, we were doomed to continue at a snail’s pace.
We arrived in the city like a lost float at a parade, gliding in at a comfortable 27 kilometres per hour. When she parked in front of the hostel – we had coincidentally made bookings at the same one – and turned off the car, I raised my arms in victory.
‘We made it!!’
2. Fast & Furious
One thing I was really looking forward to doing in Georgia was horseback riding. I imaged myself running wild through meadows and forests, with blue skies and bright green grass underneath on a beautiful white stallion…
Maybe not a stallion, though. Those things can be feisty.
So when I got the chance to make my wildest fantasies come true in Mestia, I jumped at the chance. David, my guide for the day, knew barely any English, but we got along. He helped me jump in the saddle and adjust my stirrups, and off we went.
You see, I already know how to ride a horse, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to end up lead in a leash; and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be a part of some boring group just walking casually along the ridges.
‘Don’t worry’, David told me when the lady at the tourist info translated my concerns for him. ‘Is a very good horse and very fast.’
So when he asked, ‘You want fast?’, HELL YES was the only possible answer.
The chestnut mare I was riding obviously thought the same. David let me go first, and as soon as I gave my mare the sign – ZING! Like a bullet from a gun, she was on the path.
Her sudden speed surprised me. I jerked back and lost one of the stirrups. Faster and faster, her little hooves beating the dirt road underneath, the forest around me turning into a blur. On the corner of my eye, I saw David’s tan young stallion coming in hot, and that seemed to spring my mare into an even greater speed.
‘SLOW! SLOW!’ I screamed at David as I tried pulling my horse’s reins. My thighs were squeezed around the saddle, desperate to keep me onboard. The horse leapt forward a few more steps, then slowed down, almost contemptuous at my cowardice.
There was one thing David had failed to mention: these were Georgian race horses.
He had actually been holding back; as we took a break at the ruins of an old pavilion, he showed me videos of him racing, the 4-year old stallion sprinting past everyone on a makeshift racetrack against half a dozen other horses. The jockeys rode bareback, proportionally seeming too big for their ponies but still ushering incredible speed out of their horses. His horse was a village champion, having come in first in many races.
‘Georgian horse, small and strong and very fast,’ he told me proudly.
The rest of the way we walked.
3. No Money No Problem
Look, Georgia is a perfectly advanced country. Sometimes there are just… blips.
This morning, Liberty bank – the only operating bank in town that seems to accept non-Georgian cards – was out of money. I had a ten-hour hike before me to another village and an equivalent of one euro in my pocket, but even as hours dragged on, I kept making calculations. If I walk real fast, I can still make it before sundown. If I could exchange my Armenian cash for laris, I could still pay the guest house on the other end.
After waiting in front of the bank for two hours playing sudoku on my phone, I was informed the ATMs would be filled up again at three in the afternoon, and no, they did not want my filthy Armenian money.
Just one thought running in my mind, I woke up at 6 for this?
It was becoming clear that I would not be crossing any mountains today. Instead, I spend 30 cents on a large freshly baked bread – since it was the only things my cents could afford – and sadly sat down on the side of the road to enjoy my rather dry breakfast.
Hey, I might not be living my best hot girl summer, but I’ll take hot bread summer instead.
After a few phone calls, I’d booked another night in Mestia and managed to push back my reservation in the other place by one night. No use crying over moneyless ATMs. I took my boots up the hill next to the town.
A hike up to the Mentashi radio tower grants fantastic views on the mountains on both sides, including the impressive Mount Ushba, that at 4,690 m doesn’t even rank among the highest peaks of the Caucasus but that has been nicknamed the local Matterhorn for its recognisable shape. I guess everything in this life needs a reference point; the Caucasus is “Georgian Alps”, khinkali is “Georgian dumplings”, and Mestia is “the Tbilisi of Svaneti”.
The hike up is easy if you take the ski lift. I stood in front of the chirring machine, desolately staring at the 15 lari mark-up. Once more, I counted my coins, like hoping they would’ve fallen in love in the meantime and done what things in love do – procreated. Alas, no such luck.
Then again, if I had taken the ski-lift up, I wouldn’t have hiked up to the station, prolonging the half-an hour hike by good ten kilometres. I wouldn’t have been so tired coming back on the same route that I’d decide to hitchhike back to town. And I would have never witnessed a small truck in front of the pick-up that picked me up accidentally tear into a power line pole, and then see a friendly neighbour – definitely more helpful than smart – try to hold onto the falling pole by putting his bare hands on the exposed and now cracked power lines.
4. Thunderstorm and Lightning, Very Very Frightening
Another morning, another six a.m. wake-up-call.
At night, I woke up in the pitch-black dormitory to heavy rain battering the roof and the distant rumble of thunder. The echoes of the storm followed me through the early morning hours as I drifted in and out of sleep, every time hoping it would stop before my alarm went off.
When I left Mestia behind, the skies were clear and the grass glittered from last night’s rain. Up the steep hill, past sleepy farm houses and into the forest I went. When I at times emerged, I had my eyes fixated on the large cross on top of the hill, as if visualising the journey would bring me there quicker. The sharp ascend to the cross was only the first part of the rough ten-hour trip to Mazeri but my map promised a flatter path as soon as I’d reach the top.
Fluffy white clouds started rolling down the mountain. The mist swallowed the treetops and the cross, the wisps of its lower clouds sneaking stealthily towards me. The path rose almost upright, steadily snaking up through the pine trees and raspberry bushes devoid of berries. Were they all dead or was I too early in the season, I couldn’t tell. As I dived under a section of thick overgrowth, it felt like the night was falling. In the sudden shadows, the only sound I could hear was the unsteady tip-tap of an oncoming rain.
The podcast episode I was listening to talked about spooky forests. In hindsight, not the brightest choice – I mean, the title of the episode was Don’t Go into the Woods, Man. As the narrators relayed the story of the Tall Man, a German monster that steals kids from their homes, I heard a voice of a child.
So it’s 8 a.m. I’m an hour and a half up a mountain and away from the nearest house. And there. Are. Children’s. Voices.
I stopped to listen but the voice had disappeared.
Two minutes after, a group of German hikers passed me by. All very much adult men. They greeted me curtly before marching past me, and I had to laugh at my own imagination. The spooky stories, the ominous clouds, my own solitude… These things can get to you.
Hours later, I was rushing down the other side of the mountain. After successfully clambering over a few mountain streams and dragging myself up to 3,000 metres to Guli pass, I’d heard the ruminations of a storm yet again. Thunder echoed amongst the peaks that I couldn’t see through a veil of clouds, and I felt its warning in my bones. So I started to descend as fast as I could, the gloomy skies eyeing me up from a distance.
I chased the patches of daylight until they became more and more frequent and finally the threat of rain and thunder was gone. The path was narrow now, easier to lose in a maze of criss-crossing cow tracks. I hacked my way through some nettles leaning onto the path an found myself at a seemingly quiet little cottage.
No one was around so I sat on a log behind the building to rest. I pulled out my phone for a quick game of sudoku… And then I heard the creaking behind my back.
I slowly turned my head. The door to a small storage building behind me was ajar. Had it been closed when I’d arrived? With a gust of wind, the door yawned open with a slow, deliberate creaking sound. Like an invitation. The inside was empty; I couldn’t see as much as trash on the floor.
Look, I’ve seen enough horror movies to know when to walk away. If I’m going to be a protagonist on anything, I want it to be one of those romantic comedies where my counterpart is Hugh Grant.
I’d barely taken ten steps away from the cottage when loud, deep singing made my bones jump out of my skin. A hundred metres away stood an older man in a dirty vest that bared his chest, holding a large plastic canister of water, singing a song that sounded like a Georgian anthem.
A girl came running out of the cottage to greet the man. She was screaming and cheering like someone who sees the shore for the first time after being shipwrecked for months. A tall young man, presumably a boyfriend, walked after her.
From a distance, I watched as the trio met, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I continued on my way and never saw the three again.
At the end of an entirely bizarre day, I arrive at my guest house just to find out that they don’t have any water, and somehow having to do with no shower is the biggest horror of the day. The 104-year-old owner and her sisters cooked a great eggplant curry, though, and that made everything right.
5. The Natural Way to Repent Your Sins
In 2010, I did a short student exchange in the South of Germany, and one weekend my host family took me to trip to Austria. When hiking in the Alps, we came across a set of shallow baths. Each one was long, almost like a trough, and filled with water that got progressively colder as you moved from trough to trough. My host mum explained that they were Catholic penance baths that hardcore Christians could use to cleanse themselves from their sins. Because obviously the only way out is pain.
Well, when you’re hiking in the Caucasus mountains, any river can be a Catholic penance bath if you just repent hard enough.
The third day of the hike from Mestia to Ushguli is without a doubt the most gorgeous one. For the first part of the morning, the path followed the bottom of the valley and the run of the river until I reached the foot of the Adishi glacier that even at the end of July was covered in snow. Skies were blue, grass was green, birds were probably chirping, the sound of the river was like straight out of one of those atmospheric sound apps. Idyllic as hell – until I got to the river crossing.
The easiest way to ford the rapids is on horseback. Since early morning, local men had been sitting on the riverbank with their tough Caucasian ponies, waiting to help a couple of helpless tourists across. The ride costs a whopping 20 lari – almost 7 euros.
It seems like building a bridge would be a really easy, fast solution to this problem; but seeing how much income these farmers would lose, I doubt a bridge would stand there longer than one night.
It’s also possible to cross by foot. This is where Catholic penance baths come into play.
I tied my hiking boots to the top of my backpack and stuffed my socks inside. Other hikers were hesitating on the riverbank, a couple of guys even trying to pile up stepping stones. I really didn’t want to do it; but I am more competitive than afraid of getting literal cold feet, so I stepped in yelling, ‘Come on, it’s not so bad!’
News flash: it was that bad.
The first shock of the cold subsided quickly. In a matter of seconds, my feet were completely numb. Even at ankle’s depth, the stream was quite strong, and I had to place my bare feet carefully to not slip on the stones. Step by step. Finally, on the other side, I got out and screamed and laughed as the feeling started coming back, and my feet felt like they were being burned by the force of hellfire.
But of course fording a mountain river is not that simple.
After three more smaller crossings, I came to the main show of the day. The group in front of me had used a rope to hold onto as they made it across, but by the time I reached them, they were filing out and apologetically shrugged their shoulders at me. They couldn’t wait around to help me.
‘How deep is it?’
A girl on the other side flattened her palm and lifted it up to her waist.
The river was furious. Waist-deep doesn’t seem like such a big deal until you’re faced with the rage of such a natural power that threatens to sweep you off your feet and carry you all the way down to Armenia with it.
I tried a few spots before following a tall, blonde man to a promising location. I watched him struggle over. I only had one hiking pole, so he tossed one of his for me to borrow.
I submerged one foot and wedged my walking pole firmly on the bottom. One more foot in. Icy glacial water rumbled around me, splashing up my calves and above my knees. I lifted the hiking pole and the force of the stream almost ripped it out of my hand; but I managed to strike it back into the riverbed. One step forward; another step. I’d been in the river for maybe thirty seconds but I could feel the cold creeping up my thighs, my skin prickled and in pain, feeling like I might freeze solid like a prop in Frozen. Another thwack of the walking pole. The middle of the stream ran even faster, hungrier, and as I went to move my foot, I could feel the water enveloping it and start to sweep it away.
‘I’m gonna go to the horses!’ I shouted at the man on the other side.
I prepared to throw the stick back at him, but he gestured me to hold up. ‘You can give the hiking stick to my girlfriend!’ he yelled. Probably thinking I couldn’t fling the stick across without losing it into the river. Probably being right.
I made it downstream just to face another problem: I had no idea what the man’s girlfriend looked like.
‘Did someone here lose their boyfriend?’
A tall, tan blonde – the perfect female version of her partner – received the borrowed hiking pole before mounting a pony and riding across. Downstream, the river seemed more shallow, more gentle.
I watched two guys cross ten metres downstream from the horses. Water only crept up to their knees. There I finally managed to get across. On the opposite bank, I jumped out and yelped as the feeling came rushing back. I rested my feet on the sunny stones desperate for any warmth.
My feet had thoroughly repented, Catholic or not.
QUICK FACTS Svaneti:
The best way to explore the region is to get to Mestia, which is the biggest town in the area.
By bus: There are daily marshrutkas from Tbilisi to Mestia in the morning. The trip takes around nine hours. Marshrutkas from Zugdidi, the nearest city to Mestia, has more frequent busses, and the trip from there takes three hours. (Obviously you can get there from other cities, too, but you’re most likely to be coming from these two.)
By car: You can drive yourself; traffic in Georgia is crazy but as soon as you’re out of cities, it becomes a lot less hectic. Another option is to hitchhike (LINK to safety tips); Georgians are known for their hospitality and getting a lift is super duper easy.
By plane: Oh yes, there’s a plane. One that runs on propellers and looks like a toy that a 3-year-old should be waving around above a Lego city – but it’s safe and cuts off precious travel hours if you’re on a shorter holiday (45 minutes from Kutaisi, 55 minutes from Tbilisi.)
Mestia is very, very touristy. Like you won’t be able to take two steps without stumbling over a guest house. The nearby villages are also catching onto the trend, and finding accommodation isn’t a problem anywhere even at the height of peak season. Here are the places where I stayed at and actually enjoyed:
SvanLand – at 14 lari/night in a dormitory, it’s a very comfortable, affordable option. You can also camp there, and the lovely owner – who speaks English – let me store my extra stuff there while I went off to hike to Ushguli. And they have a bunch of adorable dogs around so like, win.
Manoni’s Guest House – If you’re looking for more of a backpacker vibe, this one’s it. The owner speaks excellent English and they have a pretty good breakfast for 10 lari.
In most towns, you’ll pay 50-60 lari for a double room, dinner and breakfast (and if you’re vegetarian, they can usually accommodate you). Out of the places I stayed at, I really recommend these!
Milo’s guest house in Mazeri – the three elderly (the oldest one is 104 years old!) ladies who run the place are great cooks.
Vodo’s guest house in Chvabiani – an AMAZING place where the family collectively speaks a little English and German, cook TONS of good food (like, I’m talking 11 plates each), wash your laundry, and play cards with you at night.
Nino&Tarzan in Adishi – Another amazing place where they just keep carrying food to the table even after you’re full. And their cute resident cat might come snuggle with you.
Other important stuff:
Internet: Most restaurants and cafés in Mestia have wifi – good thing, too, since many of the guest houses have terrible connections. There’s also a small Beeline stall where you can buy a local SIM card. (If you’re hiking in the more remote areas, you probably won’t find connection, though.)
Banks: There are two operating ATMs in Mestia. The Basisbank didn’t accept my foreign card. Liberty Bank has two ATMs and a bank that can also exchange money.