Introduction, and getting there
Georgia is treasure trove of natural beauty. Located in between the greater and lesser Caucasus ranges, it hosts a mountain galore on both its northern and southern flanks. Most visitors flock to mount Kazbegi on the northern border with Russia, which is also easily accessible, even as a day trip, from Tbilisi via the Georgian Military Highway. Kazbegi is home to one of the most picturesque places in all of Georgia, the Gergeti Sameba church with the dramatic backdrop of snowclad mount Kazbegi in the background.
Another place that is even more picturesque than Kazbegi, but lesser known – or at the least lesser visited – is the Svaneti region in the north-western corner of Georgia, next door to Abkhazia. Svaneti is nestled inside a valley surrounded by dramatic mountains on all sides. This also means that getting there is a bigger undertaking, and it can easily take the better part of a day to just travel from Tbilisi to the Mestia, the main Svan city.
From Mestia, you can travel on further into the deeper regions of Svaneti to visit authentic and well preserved villages, to experience Svan culture, and explore the infamous Svan watchtowers firsthand. These are 1000 year old stonetowers dotting the landscape all over Svaneti, having been used to watch out for enemies, but also to survive through the harsh winters with avalanches not being uncommon etc. Nowadays they are mostly for decoration, but also a stark reminder of the ancient and lasting Svan culture.
Svaneti being mostly isolated from the rest of Georgia until in recent centuries, have their own language and culture, and ordinary Georgians used to see the Svans as the wild uncontrolled mountain people. But with the arrival of civilization – and tourists – the Svans have become more integrated participants in the Georgian family.
There are two ways to get into Svaneti.
Either you drive along the only existing road north from Zugdidi for 135 kms, through absolutely stunning landscapes, but you’ll also encounter hair pin turns, poor road security and crazy Georgian drivers. It is an experience for sure.
The second way is to fly into the tiny Queen Tamar airport in Mestia, but the flights here are not very frequent, and also expensive compared to opting in for the drive.
When I visited Svaneti in 2015 I opted for the driving option, taking a Marshrutka from Tbilisi all the way up to Svaneti. It is quite a long trip, which took (I believe) 7-8 hours – but to be fair we also had a stop along the way because another car crashed into our marshrutka. Nobody were hurt, but we had to wait for the police to come and write a report. That took most of an hour, and gave us all a shock, quite the unexpected drama. And that was even before entering the Svaneti valley!
Luckily nothing more happened, and we reached Mestia safely in the end. Mestia is a town of about 2000 inhabitants. It has in recent years become a tourist/hiking mecca, meaning that cafes, restaurants and guesthouses are plentiful, but even then, Mestia is getting increasingly popular with the hiking crowd, so be sure to arrange accommodation before arrival.
The city had received modern buildings with some peculiar architecture, sticking out like a sore thumb in the old original buildings that makes up the remainder of the Svaneti region. Its tacky, but in a way gives a good impression of old versus new. Even with its attempted modernity, the city center still hosts free roaming cows wandering from pasture to pasture. They are harmless, and it is quite fun to run into a pack of cows in the middle of town sometimes.
Chalaadi glacier hike
The main reason to head to Svaneti, is to delve into the rich natural and cultural riches located in the area, many easily hikeable from Mestia. One of the more famous ones is the Chalaadi glacier, one of the few glaciers remaining in the greater Caucasus area, but it is also receding fast. The glaciers melt-water also feeds the raging river going through the whole Svaneti valley, including Mestia, it is thus an important lifeline for the whole area.
It is located north-east of Mestia, easily doable as a day-trip, just bring some good hiking shoes and some liquid and snacks along! It is simple to find the trail-head leading to the glacier, as it is located at the end of the only road leading out of Mestia in that general direction, going past the tiny Queen Tamar airport, and some peaceful villages. On the other side of the road, you’ll be following the Mestiachala river, which at certain points has small outlets with calm water, there you can take a rest, enjoy the landscape and dip your feet for some cooling down. Elsewhere, the river is definitely too powerful to attempt to dip into.
The walk out to the trail-start is about 8 km from the city center, but goes along the totally flat road, and through spectacular landscapes, but it might be worth hitching a ride down to the trail start. My own trip to the glacier started as a solo walk, but eventually I stumbled into a Lithuanian couple heading the same direction, and it didn’t take long until a car with local Georgians stopped and picked us up and brought the last kms to the trail start.
At the trail start, you cross a rickety bridge across the river, and then you’re off on the well marked trail taking you to the glacier. Our new georgian friends joined us on the hike, so we were in very good hands – and had a good supply of the local chacha liquid too. The trail to the glacier is another few kms with a slight uphill climb, but it is easily doable for anybody, no great cardio necessary. Eventually after hiking through the forest, you’ll emerge into the wide open glacier deposit area, where tons of huge boulders have been left behind by the receding glacier. From here, the last part of the way to the glacier is a bit more tricky as you have to navigate over all these boulders without tripping. But the glacier is now essentially in view in front of you, so the motivation to continue is very much present. You’ll be able to get fairly close to the glacier, but be careful when you reach the bottom of the glacier, the stones and mounds might not be very stable, so keep a good distance from the river-side. You don’t want to accidentally cause a collapse and fall in.
Good job, you made it to the glacier! Now enjoy the immense beauty of the area before heading back the same way.
On my own trip, the Georgians cooked up a barbeque for us after the hike, right at the trail head. We were also joined by a park-ranger who was out with his pet baby bear, much to the amazement of everybody present. Quite a magical ending to this hike.
There’s many small and remote villages in the area, but one gets more press than the others – the village of Ushguli. It is situated about 2 hours by truck from Mestia, far out into the remote countryside. It is also possible to join a multiple day hike through several small villages, but if you don’t have the time, there should be plenty of vehicles bringing people back and forth every day.
I did this trip on my second full day in Svaneti, after having joined with my two good friends from the US and Canada that I had met earlier on my trip through Georgia, in Kazbegi. We had some conflicting schedules and so couldn’t follow each other entirely, but we had planned on meeting up in Svaneti again as both our itineraries put us there at the same time. I found them the previous night, after coming back from my hike to the Chalaadi glacier, and we had a good night out on the tiny town with drinks, food, and Svan throat singing. Now we were ready to tackle a small adventure together again.
Ushguli has plenty of guard towers, a small ethnographic museum, and some of the most dramatic and impressive mountain views in all of Georgia – being located just below the tallest mountain in Georgia, Mount Shkara (at 5193 meters, it is even taller than Kazbegi). The view of Shkara and the surrounding peaks covered in snow is worth the trip out to this village. Furthermore, a walk around the authentic village is also very interesting. When I was there in 2015, there was a small restaurant and a few simple guesthouses, but I’m sure the tourism infrastructure has developed even further since then.
There’s plenty of paths to hike in the area, leading you slightly closer to mount Shkara, taking you into the wild plains of this rugged part of Georgia, where we also encountered packs of horses roaming around. You can also reach some great viewpoints, particular those behind the village itself, giving you out-of-this-world view of the quaint village with the imposing greater caucasus mountains as a backdrop. It doesn’t get much more picturesque than that.
The trip to Ushguli is a trip in itself. Like everywhere else in this region, the views remain stunning at all times, always a new grand mountain summit visible, or just enjoying the stonetowers dotting the landscape. Sit back, relax, and enjoy being transported through this heaven on earth.
Hike to Tshakazagari viewpoint / Koruldi lakes
On the third, and final, full day in Svaneti, I was once again joined by my north american friends, and we had decided that we would go on a hike together, repeating the great success we had had climbing up to the Gergeti Sameba church in Kazbegi a couple of days earlier. The obvious choice was the trail going straight out from Mestia city, taking you high up above the valley surrounding Mestia for some astounding views of the whole valley, and the twin-summits of mount Ushba, a 4710 meter behemoth. While it isn’t even among the top 10 tallest mountains in the caucasus range, it is well known due to its twin peaks, and imposing steep mountain-sides, earning it the nickname “the Matterhorn of the Caucasus”.
It is a very good idea to get a map of the local trails from one of the tourist shops in town beforehand, as the trail isn’t super well marked at all points (at least not back in 2015). Especially finding the right trail-start was a bit difficult for us, and we had to backtrack a few times. It should also be said right away that this hike has some very steep ascents, and requires a descent cardio level, at least if you want to not be completely miserable the entire time. The hike is about 8 km each way, with a ~1200m incline. A full roundtrip takes up most of a day, so start early! And bring water and snacks, it will be needed!
When you have managed to locate the right trail, navigating becomes easier, as pretty soon there’ll only be one path to follow.
There’s multiple natural stopping points along the way, yielding increasingly impressive views of the area as you climb higher and higher. The first terminal point of this trail is the Tshakazagari view point, which is a bare cliff with a magnificent view down onto Mestia. There’s also a big metal cross standing at this location, and a watchtower offering even better views, and shadows where you can rest for a bit, replenishing the energy deposits while soaking in the mesmerizing surroundings.
Words cannot do the view from here justice.
From Tshakazagari viewpoint you can continue a little ways longer up to the Koruldi lakes, but theres a further 200 meter ascend up there. Unfortunately I was in a terrible shape back in 2015 and had to give up on making it up to the lakes. My 2 friends did go up there, and reported back that it wasn’t anything special, but I’m sure they were just trying to be nice to me! Anyways, from the lakes you can, if you so desire, continue the hike even further onwards up and across the Koruldi ridge, for even better views of mount Ushba, but at that point it becomes a multi-day trip.
In the end the whole journey up and down took us around 8-9 hours, was 16 kms of walking with 1200 meters ascend and descend. While it isn’t the easiest hikes, it is worth it for some of the best views in all of Georgia (notice how Svaneti has many of those!).
At the end of the day my legs were shattered, and I was more than happy to return to Mestia, shower, and then head out for some well deserved drinks with my friends, before we were to head back to Tbilisi together by Marshrutka the following day.
I honestly don’t remember anything from the drive back to Tbilisi, I must have been extremely tired from the hike even the day after. But it was pretty uneventful compared to the journey enroute to Mestia at least, and we made it safely without any delays to Tbilisi!
Visit Svaneti, one of the wild frontiers of Georgia, where unbelievable views, raw nature and unspoiled culture is around every corner.