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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?