Hiking in the mountains of Svaneti, Georgia

 

During the Easter weekend we joined a hiking trip to the Svaneti region of Georgia. Wizzair now flies directly to Kutaisi from Berlin at a reasonable cost. From Kutaisi our group was taken in a minibus to Mestia along winding, bumpy mountain roads. It’s possible to catch a public minibus taxi (marshrutka) along the same route, which five of us who were staying longer did on the way back – it’s cheap but you can be unlucky with seats and end up squashed like sardines. Try not to end up in the back row of the minibus like we did, as there’s much less leg room. I ended sitting on half a seat with my one knee digging into the seat in front for the entire trip because one of the women we were travelling with had very long legs and had to sit at an angle – she was almost in tears by the end of the trip because her knees were hurting, so she probably had it worse than me.

Relatively comfortable, until a whole lot more people piled in!

The rough mountain roads didn’t bother me, but there were a couple of people who felt motion sickness or who were afraid, so be warned! However there are fantastic views of the mountains and valleys heading up to Mestia, tucked at 1500m in the Caucausus  mountains. Near Mestia is the snow-capped 4710m peak of Ushba, and there is a ski resort on the slopes of 4858m high Tetnuldi. Just across the border, in Russia, you can find the highest of the Caucasian mountains, Mount Elbrus.

Ushba

Tetnuldi

Mestia, like other towns in the Svaneti region, features many medieval towers, called murkva in Svanetia. We were told that each extended family owns a tower, which in former times was so that if people invaded the village or if there were feuds between families, they could hide up there.

Everyone also owns a cow or two, which are essential for living, since over the winter months the town runs the chance of being cut off from the rest of the world by the heavy snowfall that occurs in the mountains. Cheese forms a major part of the diet in the Svaneti region, which you can read more about in my previous post on Georgian food. In the morning, the cows go out to pasture, and in the evening, they return home, usually by themselves. One evening we sat on the balcony watching the cows coming home; it was somehow fascinating and I thought of it as CowTV. When the neighbours’ cow arrived it started mooing at the gate to be let in, while the cows that arrived at our hosts’ home waited patiently in the driveway. A bull then arrived and started checking out our cows, but at some point his cow-clan were too far ahead of him and he decided he’d better move along.

Another thing you’ll find in Mestia is a lot of dogs. They follow you in the hopes of food, but they look generally healthy, so I’m not sure if they have particular owners or are just communal dogs. They are all very friendly but can be quite persistent about asking for food so they are probably hungry.Some of them seem to look after the cows, but on the other hand one that was walking with cows came bounding over from them to me as soon as he saw me, so I’m not sure if he was working or just going for a walk with them.

Let sleeping dogs lie

So why did we go to Mestia? For hiking, of course! On the first day of hiking, our group was taken with a minibus to start a guided hike to Shdugra waterfall. We had two surprises. Number one, shortly after setting off on our hike we were stopped by Georgian soldiers, who told us after consulting with their supervisor that we needed permission to do the hike. Our guides complained that this had never been the case before, but in the end we had to give our passports to the guides, who drove back to an office with the soldiers to take down our details. The general himself apologized to our guide on the phone, saying that it was only because it was the Easter weekend and nobody was at the border post that we would reach during our hike. Georgia borders Russia, and there is dispute over some of the territory, with Russia having occupied two regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. However, even after the border post we reached on our hike, you would still have to hike over some seriously high mountains before you would accidentally end up in Russian territory.

At least we had good views while we were waiting

Surprise number two was that there was still a good deal of snow on the ground, as apparently spring was a bit later in the mountains this year. Luckily for me I’d checked the weather forecast and worn some snow hiking shoes, but others were not so lucky and got very wet shoes and socks. hiking through snow is quite hard work though. The best is for the people in front to put their feet down slowly into the snow, and for the people behind to follow directly in their footprints. However even while walking in footprints, now and then your foot would sink deeper into the snow and you’d suddenly find yourself in snow up to your knee or higher, and have to climb out.

Coming across the first snow

The views of the mountains on the hike were exceptionally beautiful though.We hiked up to the border post where we had our lunch of bread and cheese with coriander leaves, and then headed back as it was too late in the day to go further, considering the snow. If you continue along the trail, you can reach a glacier.

At the border

On the way home, we spotted more cows, and when we got back one of the cows belonging to our house was waiting at the door.

Arriving back in Mestia

After getting back to Mestia we decided to walk around the town to look at the nearby church and take in some views.

In the evening, we headed out for some Georgian food and wine. I tried clay pot beans with walnuts and it was wonderful, although I don’t usually eat so many beans so I had heartburn later on in the evening (the combination with the local wine and a shot of spirits offered to us in a local bar might have contributed!). Saturday night in the bar was very lively and the local dancing is very energetic and involves a lot of jumping. The locals certainly know how to party. We enjoyed trying the different wines, which have a their own character and flavour. The oldest evidence of wine was actually discovered in Georgia, where wine started off being made in clay pots. It’s often still made in clay pots, which gives it a special taste. You can get both semi-sweet and dry wines, and if we hadn’t had only hand luggage I would have bought some of the semi-sweet red wine to take back.

An example of Georgian food: khinkali (dumplings)

Khachapuri

Some people stayed out late partying more than us (a result of more shots) and I was amazed when everyone managed to pull themselves together in the morning to make it in time for the second hike,

The cows being sent out in the morning, before we set off for our hike

This hike was to a wooden cross situated part way up the mountain, and was a lot tougher in terms of uphill than the first hike. In fact, it was uphill all the way up to the cross, and we also had to hike through a lot of snow again. However, the first part of the hike was green, before we reached the snow.

Then the snowy part started, first with just a little bit of snow here and there, and then in parts the snow was almost waist high. We were rewarded with views of the peak of majestic Ushba, which looked quite near but which was still far away, approximately another 2000m upwards in fact, and through a lot more snow!

The peak of Ushba, much closer than it looks…

On the way down, some people decide to take the quick way down after battling in deep snow, and went down penguin style on stomachs!

As we got lower down, we started to see a few spring flowers and we also had a lovely view of Mestia.

After the hike, the majority of the group left on a mini-bus to Kutaisi, from where they’d fly back to Berlin the next morning. However, five of us stayed behind for another two days. The next day, a marshrutka driver in the town square drove us to Tetnuldi, as our idea was to take the ski lift up for good views (the top ski lift is at around 3165m). The drive itself was very beautiful, on rough roads through great mountain scenery. When we arrived at the ski lift, it was unfortunately shut, and it turned out that it had closed just the day before. Someone in our group then had the idea to walk up the snowy slopes to the top of the ski lift nevertheless.

Part of our breakfast before the hike

Although the views were great, I cannot say that I enjoyed the walk so much, because I had a raw patch on the back of one heel from the constant uphill of the day before, and today’s climb was again steep. My mood lifted when we arrived on top and could rest a bit and admire the views. What I did not realize at the time was that I was burning severely in the sun. I was wearing a hiking hat and had even put some suncream on my face, but what I didn’t realize was that the UV rays bouncing off the snow were burning me in weird places such as under my chin, under my nose, and on my lips. i only realized upon waking up the next morning that I was extremely burnt, as my lips and eyelids were swollen. My face looked very weird in the mirror. In all my years living in South Africa, I never got a burn like that before. Snow is apparently very good at reflecting UV rays, and I heard that you also burn more at high altitude since the air is thinner (we were at around 3000m). Next time I’d be sure to slather the suncream all over my face, even in the weird spots, and put something special on my lips.

Although we’d been hiking in snow, as we headed back to Mestia, you could feel spring in the air. Little flowers were appearing on the sides of the road, and some of the snow was thawing. Our driver stopped near a natural mineral spring so that we could taste the water and fill our bottles. It had a strong metallic taste. He told us (in Russian) that there are five natural mineral springs near Mestia.

Somehow sunburn always seems to be at its worst two days after burning, which was the case when I arrived back in Berlin and had very blistered lips. However at least that started later and I could still enjoy the last day and a half in Georgia. After returning from our snow hike, we had probably our best meal of the trip at a restaurant in Mestia. I had perfectly cooked trout and a mixed vegetable dish of crispy eggplant, juicy tomatoes and lots of fragrant herbs, bathed in golden olive oil, and also got to try the delicious clay pot mushrooms with walnuts. After that we walked to the museum, but unfortunately it was closed because it was Easter Monday, so we just wandered around Mestia a bit before heading back to watch the cows coming home.

Early the next morning we gathered with many others in Mestia to catch our marshrutka to Kutaisi. As I mentioned already, it was a very uncomfortable ride since I had to sit sideways in one position with a knee jammed up against the seat in front for the whole four hours. Anyway, eventually we arrived in Kutaisi, a bit uncomfortable and grumpy. It took us a while to find the hotel which meant a lot of wandering around with backpacks feeling overheated, since Kutaisi is much warmer than Mestia due to the lower altitude. Eventually we found the hotel and cheered up as we could dump the backpacks. The five of us then set out for a walk around Kutaisi. Our main aim was the find the market, which we eventually accomplished. We bought some churchkela, long candle-like sweets made of grape juice and nuts, and admired all the piles of cheese, fruit, vegetables, flour and other goodies.

After the market it was time for an early dinner, so we could have one last khachapuri, a kind of Georgia cheese pie. One of us then went back to the hotel to the rest, while the remaining four of us took the gondola across the river up to a hill on which there was a funfair. We rode on the big wheel and on bumper cars, enjoying the great view from the big wheel, and the two guys also tried out some go-karts. It was a really pleasant place to pass a warm evening. In the end we went for some drinks by the river, enjoying the summery evening, before catching a taxi back to the hotel (taxis are very reasonably priced in Georgia).

When we arrived back at the hotel we were surprised by the hotel management by some glasses of semi-sweet red wine and some paska, an Easter cake similar to panettone. It was a great way to end our trip to Georgia.

The flight back to Berlin left very early in the morning, and we had to catch a taxi at 4am to the airport. Suddenly we were heading back to Berlin, leaving the mountains far, far behind. The memories and impressions of Georgia still remain.

And I miss the cows…

 

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