20 In Caucasus/ Georgia/ Travel Planning

Glaciers and Guide Dogs: Trekking in Svaneti, Georgia

Pristine green mountains covered in wildflowers. Snow-capped peaks. Cows grazing on open lands. I could not help but feel like I had been plopped on the set of The Sound of Music. Instead, I was in Georgia—in the rugged Svaneti province of Georgia, to be exact, a region in the northwestern part of the country that shares a border with Russia and holds several of the highest peaks of the Caucasus mountains. The province has its own unwritten Svan language and is known for its powerful polyphonic music and long history of invasions. It is a growing skiing destination in the winter, and in the summer people flock to it for trekking and mountain climbing.

I had come there to make the four-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli, one of the most popular of the region’s many multi-day treks because of the option to sleep in homestays in villages along the way, places where families rent rooms of their homes to travelers and provide meals at a small cost. There are no tents or heavy food supplies to carry, only your personal gear, along with that day’s lunch and water. And you have hot showers and a real bed to sleep in, albeit a bed with an often deeply sagging mattress. It would be my first trekking in Georgia, and my first solo multi-day trek anywhere.

Day 1: Mestia to Zhabeshi

As I began my walk out of Mestia, I got the first of what would be frequent sightings of Svanetian towers along the trek, the dominant feature in many villages in the province. The medieval stone towers run 20-25 meters in height and were once used as fortresses, as well as homes for families of up to 100 people and storage spaces for ancient treasures.

dsc05269

Leaving Mestia, with the towers in view

The forecast called for rain all afternoon, so I hustled to complete as much of the 12 km walk as I could before it got wet. Just slightly out of Mestia, I met a young Swedish couple on the trail—a woman with white blonde hair who was a doctor and a man with red hair who was—wait for it—a professional race walker. Yes. His girlfriend took a photo of him on a steep slope in the forest for his “sponsors” and implied that he was not at the Olympics that day in August only because of a bureaucratic issue. I walked and talked with them the rest of the day. How did I fare alongside the speedy one? Not bad, I say, not bad, though he may have been slowing his pace just a tiny bit.

dsc05270

Early on day one

dsc05276

After one steep climb, which the race walker glided up as if it was a moving walkway, the day’s trek was fairly easy, with rolling green hills, snow-capped mountains and views of tiny villages below. We descended into the valley and accepted an offer to stop at the home of a family in one of the villages. The young woman who invited us in offered us apples; sulguni, a salty and somewhat elastic cheese that was in the shape of a braid; as well as khachapuri, bread filled with cheese. She asked us to buy homemade gifts such as a small change purse made from wool.

dsc05292

Heading down into a valley on day one

dsc05304

As we left the home, two smiling dogs became our guides for the rest of the day, walking us past mostly empty homes and eventually along a river of pale gray cold water. The dogs stopped to look for us when we did not match their pace and finally returned back to their homes once they had escorted us across a rickety log bridge that landed us in Zhabeshi, a quiet village that is the most common end point of the trek on day one.

dsc05307

A home we passed along the trail

dsc05324

dsc05341

The dogs returning home after dropping us in Zhabeshi

I spent the night at a homestay where an elderly man fixed an axe in a wooden shed, an animal—was it a pig? a cow?—blew out loud sounds like a horn, men from a nearby military post walked by in camouflage clothing and sunrays flickered through the branches of trees, leaving spots of light on the grass and porch.

dsc05355

I loved some of the furniture at this homestay

dsc05359

Part of my large room with three beds

img_2075

Part of the outdoor seating area at the homestay

Day Two: Zhabeshi to Adishi 

This day was reputed to be the toughest of the trek. The rain forecast for the day before had never arrived in more than brief and light drops, but it looked more likely today, with darker clouds hanging in the sky. In the morning, I walked past herds of cows and abandoned stone buildings outside of Zhabeshi and moved along the river to the village of Chvabiani, where a group of men sitting on a rooftop pointed me in the direction of a church. This was the beginning of what was a relentlessly steep ascent. I shared the trail with more grazing cows who reluctantly stepped to the side as I came past and, eventually, with lavender wildflowers. The ascent ended at a ski lift, and the path continued along fields of more wildflowers and clear streams. I passed men scything tall grasses that will be used to feed their animals in the winter and finally arrived above a valley with a view of the isolated village of Adishi below.

dsc05385

I loved the color of the rivers in the area

 

dsc05390

Looking through the wall of an abandoned building, just outside Zhabeshi

dsc05402

Coming into Chvabiani

dsc05413

dsc05441

A clear stream along the way to Adishi

dsc05431

At the top of day two’s climb, near the ski lift

As I descended into Adishi, adult pigs and piglets sniffed on rocky and muddy paths. The village held multiple towers and crumbling stone buildings. Some roofs, I heard, had fallen in from the weight of the snow in the winter. The village was small, with views of the Adishischala river rushing over small rocks and tall green mountains encasing it. I arrived at a homestay with a somewhat dusty porch and dirt-smudged glass windows. It overlooked the crumbling homes in the village, as well as the valley below. To its side, horses stood on a square of mud. In the living area, the men sat around a round wood table eating bread and drinking beer. The mother, a woman with dark hair, a black skirt and top, green eyes and a natural warmth, added small plates of barbecued pork to their table.

 

dsc05473

Arriving at Adishi at the end of day two

dsc05495

Above and below, abandoned houses in Adishi

dsc05498

dsc05505

The porch of my homestay in Adishi

I settled into my room upstairs and then carefully side-stepped my way down the steep and narrow wooden steps to the porch. Once again, I met the Swedish couple, who had stopped in for a beer at what was perhaps the only place in Adishi that offered it. The day had been easy, they said, so easy that they planned to combine the next two days of trekking into one day. After all, you need to feel like you have “earned” the big meals you get at the homestays. The meals are, indeed, large. The table is set with multiple plates, almost always including khachapuri, as well as other dishes such as a salad of carrots, cabbage and dill; slices of fried eggplant folded over a layer of ground walnuts and garlic; a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers; and some variation of a potato dish—often fried potatoes and once the mashed potatoes and cheese dish called tashmujabi that is a specialty in Svaneti. I particularly enjoyed the kubdari, another Svaneti specialty that is a round bread filled with meat, onions and spices. And then there were the extras such as delicious homemade yogurt and fresh melon. Yes, as I had heard in my first days in Tbilisi, “You will never go hungry in Georgia.”

dsc05502

Dinner at my homestay in Adishi

dsc05380

Dinner at my homestay in Zhabeshi

Day Three: Adishi to Iprali

The first segment of day three’s 15 km included a river crossing near the Adishi glacier that I had read could be risky because of the depth of the rushing water. Though many people simply walked upstream and crossed at a more shallow spot, crossing by horse was another option, one that sounded fun to me. At breakfast that morning, my host in Adishi mentioned that she could arrange for someone to lead me by horse to the river and then take me across for 50 GEL. I was nursing three blisters. It did not take me long to say yes.

dsc05514

A tower and stream next to my homestay in Adishi

The morning was bright and nearly cloudless, giving us clear views, first of Mt. Ushba (4,710 meters) and, later, Mt. Tetnuldi (4,858 meters). We meandered on a path just up from the river, passing fields of wildflowers and sampling sweet raspberries the guide picked along the trail. Eventually, the Adishi glacier was in sight, and soon, we were near the foot of the glacier. The guide hopped on the horse behind me, grabbed the reins in front of me and led us through the rapids.

dsc05538

A view from the horse, with Mt. Ushba in the distance

dsc05577

Near the Chkhunderi pass, with the Adishischala river below and Mt. Ushba in the distance

dsc05579

Adishi glacier

 

From there, I was on my own, making another long and steep climb to the Chkhunderi pass. At 2,655 meters, it is the highest elevation of the four-day trek and offers panoramic views. I took a lengthy break to enjoy the sun and absorb as much as I could of the views of the Adishi glacier behind me, snow-capped mountains, a perfectly circular blue lake in the valley and the Adishischala river. When I finally left the pass, I descended into another valley, with more wildflowers of white, yellow, orange and blue lining the trail and finished the day walking above the Khaldechala river to Iprali.

dsc05592

Me during my extended break at the Chkhunderi pass. The views were stunning. I couldn’t leave.

dsc05611

Wildflowers along the trail after lunch on day three

Day Four: Iprali to Ushguli

I got a mid-morning start toward the final destination of the trek, Ushguli, following the main road for a time before taking a diversion to move through the mountains on a somewhat overgrown trail for most of the rest of the trek. I arrived in Ushguli by mid-afternoon. At an elevation of roughly 2,100 meters, Ushguli, which is made up of four villages, is said to be one of the highest settlements in Europe. Cows walked the main road. I saw a horse with a shiny, chestnut brown coat running freely along the tall and vibrant green mountains.

dsc05640

Along the trail to Ushguli on day four

dsc05727

A tower in one of the villages of Ushguli

dsc05688

Ushguli

dsc05685

The wall of a building in the Zhibiani village of Ushguli

Ushguli gets visitors who come just for the day and had considerably more tourists than the villages I had been in the past three nights. I walked through a maze of narrow paths in the Zhibiani village of Ushguli and climbed a hill where I sat in quiet to gaze at the mountains covered in green and further peaks topped in snow.

dsc05665

A view from Ushguli toward the Shkhara glacier area

Travel & Trek Planning

Getting from Tbilisi to Mestia: To get to Mestia, I took a marshrutka (minibus) from the Samgori bus station in Tbilisi. We left at 7 a.m. and made two long food/toilet stops. It took roughly 9.5 hours and cost 30 GEL. (I believe there is also a bus that leaves at 6 a.m. from Station Square for the same price, though you would have to confirm that.) The ride back to Tbilisi (Station Square) from Mestia took about 9 hours. I bought the ticket from Tbilisi to Mestia the morning I left. I bought the return ticket to Tbilisi two days before I left Mestia (I did this because I happened to pass a store selling the tickets; I do not know that it was necessary to get it that early).

Getting from Ushguli to Mestia: I hitchhiked back to Mestia from Ushguli. It took only a minute or two for a driver with a group of Polish travelers to offer a ride. Another option is to take a marshrutka (30 GEL), though you will have to wait for a minimum number of passengers before it leaves. Last, there are minibus drivers who bring people on day trips from Mestia to Ushguli. I have heard that you can pay to get a ride back with them toward the end of the day if they have an extra seat.

Where I Stayed:

Mestia: Roza’s Guesthouse. I stayed here for one night before my trek and for two nights after I returned from Ushguli. Roza speaks English and is very helpful with trekking information, as well as general information on things to do in Mestia. The food is also good.

Zhabeshi: Givi Khakhiani Homestay. This was a quiet and very clean place with a sweet family and also very good food.

Adishi: Nino and Tarzan’s Guest House. For me, this guest house had that intangible something that gave it the warmth of a home. The food was more limited here, but I still had plenty of it, with various salads, bread and khachapuri. This was perhaps my favorite homestay of the trek.

dsc05512

Nino in her kitchen in Adishi

Iprali: Ucha Margvelani. This is more like a hotel than a homestay, though you get great home-cooked meals with lots of variety in the dishes offered. The staff is also friendly.

Ushguli: Guesthouse Kachari. I stayed here for two nights after I completed the four-day trek. It was fine, but in the future I would try the guest house Gamarjoba. Roza recommended it, and it seems to be well-liked by travelers. However, it was full when I called to book.

Notes: I made advance reservations for my stays in Mestia and Ushguli. If you are specific about where you want to stay in those places, I would recommend booking in advance in the summer months, as I did find some homestays were booked. You do not need to reserve the other homestays in advance, with the exception of Ucha Margvelani (+995 595 557470), which gets booked with large groups of travelers and—at least when I was there—was the only accommodation available in Iprali. I nearly did not get a room and ended up sleeping in a room they usually reserve for guides. If you arrive and it is full, you can walk back roughly 2 km to stay at the Khalde Guesthouse, or you can walk ahead on the trail another 1-2 km, where I saw a homestay along the road. The cost for each place I stayed in Svaneti ranged from 40-50 GEL, which included meals.

Do You Need a Guide? No. There is a tourism information office in Mestia with maps. While there are patches of the trail that are either not marked or where it is easy to get off the trail—there are many cow paths—most of the trail is marked, and I found that even if I did get slightly off trail, it worked itself out. The final off-road section on day four was perhaps the least well-marked. If you are concerned about this, you have the option of walking on the road the entire way to Ushguli on day four. This is straightforward, though you will then have to deal with cars regularly passing by. I opted to go off-road and asked fellow trekkers for help when I was not sure about the route. I was not using a GPS, so if you have a GPS, it may be easier.

Do You Need to Bring Your Own Food? No. I ate breakfast and dinner at the homestays and brought leftovers with me for lunch or, in one case, paid some extra to have the homestay give me more food for lunch. Note: Khachapuri or some other form of bread and cheese was my only lunch option every day . If you are lactose intolerant or just want other food, you may need to buy it before you start the trek and bring it with you. I saw only one place along the way where you could buy snacks. It was a tiny selection and was at the end of day three.

What Do You Recommend to do in Ushguli? Ushguli is made up of four villages that you can explore, as well as a small but interesting ethnographic museum. For me, the high points of my two days there were sitting at the top of a hill looking at the views and trekking to the Shkhara glacier.

The Shkhara glacier trek is 14 km (round-trip), but much of it is on a flat trail in the valley. It gets more rocky toward the end, and you have to climb up a mountain of somewhat unstable rock to get the closest to the glacier. Rocks of varying sizes regularly tumble down the mountain, so you will need to exercise some caution. For me, the scenery walking through the valley was the highlight of the trek, along with meeting some picnicking Georgians who offered to share bread and vegetables with me and showed me a spot where I could drink fresh but very metallic tasting mineral winter. What was much tastier was the water coming off of the Shkhara glacier. There is a special closeness to nature in drinking water straight from the source, and it is hard to believe that water can taste that good.

dsc05709

Walking in the valley toward the Shkhara glacier

dsc05703

Coming down from the Shkhara glacier area

dsc05717

Wildflowers in the valley

Additional Resources: Trekking in Caucasus is an excellent resource for information about treks all over Georgia, including both the Mestia to Ushguli trek and the trek to Shkhara glacier from Ushguli. There is also a board there that you can use to post a notice for a trekking buddy.

Have you done any trekking in the Caucasus mountains? What are your favorite places in the world for trekking? 

You Might Also Like

20 Comments

  • Reply
    Robert
    October 11, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    What an amazing trek! I would love to do that!

    • Reply
      bdemouy
      October 13, 2016 at 11:06 am

      I hope you get to do it someday. It’s really beautiful! I would love to do it again and to try some other treks in the area.

  • Reply
    Jose
    May 11, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Hello
    Very good article.
    I am thinking of doing this trekking in a month. I have problems with my knees, especially on the slopes. The road when it descends is very steep? Or is it a path that gradually descends?

    Thank you

    • Reply
      bdemouy
      May 11, 2017 at 3:03 pm

      Thanks, Jose! From what I remember, there are not many particularly steep descents, assuming you go from Mestia to Ushguli and not the reverse direction. I also have some joint issues, and in general I just prefer climbing to descending. There are some steep climbs going from Mestia to Ushguli, but not many particularly steep descents. I just remember a brief one on the first day and then a longer descent on the third day, but it wasn’t so steep that I found it hard on my knees. I remember thinking that I was glad I wasn’t coming from Ushguli to Mestia because in that direction there would have been some very steep descents. If you go, I hope you enjoy it. It’s really beautiful! Let me know if I can help with any other questions.

      • Reply
        bdemouy
        May 11, 2017 at 3:08 pm

        By the way, if you are planning to do the trek in early June, you might want to check with someone about trail conditions. It may be totally fine, but they do get a lot of snow, so you might want to just confirm with someone (Roza at the guesthouse in Mestia would be a good person to ask) that the trails would be good at that time.

        • Reply
          JOSE
          May 16, 2017 at 3:31 pm

          Thanks
          I did ask tourist information in Mestia, and they wrote me that i could find snow, but its doable.

          • bdemouy
            May 21, 2017 at 4:07 pm

            Great! Glad to hear it.

  • Reply
    Lukas
    July 5, 2017 at 7:51 am

    Dear Bridget,

    i loved reading this since i plan on doing this trek in August/September this year. Just a quick question: how did you find your communication with the hosts at the guesthouses working out. Where you able to get by with english or do you speak georgian/ russian? I only speak english myself..

    • Reply
      bdemouy
      July 5, 2017 at 11:07 pm

      Hi Lukas,
      Glad it was helpful! And I’m glad to hear you’re planning to do this. It’s a beautiful trek. I did it in the second half of August last year, so I think your timing will be good. I only speak English, too, and I was able to get by since there was usually at least one person at each guest house who spoke English–if not perfectly, well enough that we could communicate. If I’m remembering right, at the place I stayed in Adishi no one spoke great English, but we still coordinated getting dinner and other things I needed, and it was probably my favorite place I stayed since they were so sweet. Let me know if you have other questions. I hope you have a wonderful time. It’s one I would definitely do again.
      Bridget

      • Reply
        Lukas
        July 13, 2017 at 3:23 pm

        Hi,
        Thanks a lot for the info! How early did you book your stays in Mestia and Ushguli?

        • Reply
          bdemouy
          July 13, 2017 at 10:56 pm

          You’re welcome! I don’t honestly remember how far in advance I booked those places. Maybe two weeks? My first night at Roza’s I think she had taken my name by email, but they didn’t have room for me when I arrived, and I stayed at a neighbor’s house nearby. The other nights at Roza’s I was in the main house.

          • Lukas
            August 17, 2017 at 3:44 pm

            Thanks again! I have two last questions:
            You only used the maps from the tourist information, right? I thought about buying some good hiking maps from geoland in Tbilisi. Do you think that would be necessary?
            And second: How did you find the river crossing on day three? Is that something to be worried about?

          • bdemouy
            August 17, 2017 at 6:57 pm

            Yes, I used the maps from the tourist information office in Mestia. I did buy a map from Geoland beforehand, but I don’t think it’s necessary. There were a couple of times where I was on my own and not so sure which way to go, but I ended up just waiting until someone else came along and I could ask them. I got off track a couple of times, but it was never a big deal.

            The river crossing. I did it on horseback. I had bad blisters by that point and couldn’t ruin my bandages going through the water. I met a few people who did just walk upstream and walk through the water. I think it was very cold but I didn’t hear anyone say it was difficult other than that. In other words, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about with the stream crossing. You can go there and see what it looks like, and if it seems too risky, you could go across by horse. From what I remember, there were one or two people at the river with horses in case people wanted to go across. Enjoy! And feel free to ask if you have any other questions.

  • Reply
    Zin Seagull
    August 7, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    how amazing! you did it solo..wonderful..your post is very informative and details..I am also planning to do this trek solo and thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Reply
      bdemouy
      August 10, 2017 at 4:59 pm

      You’re welcome! Hope you have a great time!

  • Reply
    Kerem
    August 11, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Hello,

    Glad I found the blog.

    As of 2017, did you find the hike to be over-populated in terms of hikers? Tom Allen had an article about that at (transcaucasian.com/2016/06/08/mestia-to-ushguli-is-upper-svaneti-in-danger-of-losing-its-mysticism/). How did you find the situation there? Is suppose Ushguli to be touristic and the rest of the villages be more local. Is that the case?

    Thanks!

    • Reply
      bdemouy
      August 12, 2017 at 3:37 pm

      Hello, Kerem,
      Thanks for sharing this great article. I hadn’t seen that blog before, and it’s got some really thoughtful perspectives.

      I was there in 2016. There were definitely many other people on the trail, but I also had time to myself to take in the stunning views. Yes, Mestia and Ushguli are the most touristic. Then the other villages are less so.

      Personally, I didn’t find the tourism so high that it was a turn-off to me, and I am sensitive to that kind of thing. That said, that could be just how I felt at that time; I did meet one couple who basically turned around from Ushguli right after they got there because they felt it was too touristic. I’m glad I stayed there a couple of nights because the day trek I did there was gorgeous. Overall, for me, Svaneti has not reached a point where the touristic elements have ruined the experience, if that makes sense. It’s just so beautiful.

      If you are someone who really wants total solitude and getting away from the tourism, you could bring your own tent and food and do one of the other multi-day treks in Svaneti. I’ve also heard Tusheti is less discovered, though I didn’t visit there myself.

      I hope that helps.

      Bridget

      • Reply
        Kerem
        August 14, 2017 at 1:43 pm

        Hi Bridget,

        Thanks for the long reply.

        In the meantime, I was also doing resarch in parallel. A friend of mine has just been to Tusheti, and did a 5 days hike; I’ll get the details of their hike as soon as possible, and post here. My friend briefly told me that Tusheti was great, but I concluded that it requires either some cash or patience to reach Tusheti. I will be travelling solo, and limited in the duration of my stay, so just for the lack of the transportation options, I’ll skip Tusheti.

        Another option is Borjomi, which sounds fantastic in terms of nature, and transportation shall not be an issue (check https://www.wikiloc.com/wikiloc/imgServer.do?id=7958896). But, another problem arises for this case: If I were to pick one, and only one hike, should I stick to the “wild” one or the “authentic” one. I will go for the “authentic” (Svaneti) again: I am from Turkey, and we already have very wild mountains around, which I’ve never been to. So if I am to hike at Georgia, altough touristic, I’ll still go for Svenati – that’s my final decision now.

        I’ll write again when more news come!

        • Reply
          bdemouy
          August 17, 2017 at 7:04 pm

          Yes, it sounds like Tusheti is incredible, but it wouldn’t have worked for me at that time either. I think you’ve made a good choice :). I’ll be curious to hear how you like it!

  • Reply
    Zak (raido.io)
    September 23, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    This is one of the easeast treks I ever did, but also one with many different trails!

    Don’t skip the last day. We met no other hikers on the path! Some took the streat road, but try to finde the hidden path.

  • Leave a Reply