Our bags were too heavy. We’d only just left the Georgian village of Mestia on our way toward Ushguli, the highest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe, when it became apparent we had overpacked.
My girlfriend, Katie, and I had set out from the small town of Mestia along an increasingly popular trekking route in the foothills of the caucus mountains just south of the Russian border.
The Svaneti region is connected by a network of trails and mountain passes that link tiny hamlets that have been home to the Svan people for centuries. Every village is protected by ancient towers that have offered refuge to locals during the countless invasions they’ve suffered at the hands of their giant northern and southern neighbors.
We’d left our comfortable guesthouse with WIFI, delicious food, and hot water in Mestia early in the morning, excited by the promises of mountain passes, glaciers, and forgotten villages.
My idea of taking all 15 kilograms of our possessions with us seemed like a sensible plan the night before the trek. It would save us from returning to Mestia and allow us to go directly from Ushguli to Tbilisi. I was wrong.
Just minutes into the trek, the 30-degree heat combined with a steep incline made me wish I didn’t have my laptop, charger, and winter clothes on my back.
Luckily, as is often the case with a long trek, the first steps are the hardest, and your body eventually accepts that there’s no turning back. As I grew accustomed to the weight on my back, the scenery grew ever more distracting.
We e climbed an almost comically steep dirt track toward the Svaneti Valley, Mestia and its ancient towers grew smaller in the distance, and soon we were alone, surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Caucasus mountains.
Situated 2700 meters above sea level, the peak of the Svanety Valley is a sight to behold. Reaching the top feels like standing at the gates of a hidden world, where an endless valley runs between mountains with no sign of humanity other than tiny huts and the occasional crumbling Svan tower.
We dropped our bags and took in the endless rolling hills littered with green pastures, covered in bright yellow plants overlooked by giant 4000-meter peaks on all sides.
The toughest part of the first day was over. We made our way down the valley, following the river toward the tiny hamlet of Zhabeshi.
Zhabeshi is a far cry from the pictuerqsue Mestia. Although it has a certain charm that all isolated villages do to people who live in cities, it’s clear that the income from tourism that has unturned Mestia into a Swiss-style mountain town hasn’t made it to Zhabeshi.
We eventually found a guesthouse where an elderly woman whose name was as impossible to pronounce as it was to remember greeted us with a big smile and almost impeccable English.
Our host explained that even though she’d only been taught Russian in school once, western tourists started showing up in her little village, and she taught herself English using her smartphone. She added that winter is harsh in the valley, and the money she makes from tourists is a blessing she can’t afford to lose.
The accommodation was basic. No WiFi and limited hot water, but the electricity worked intermittently, so we were able to charge our phones that we were relying on for offline maps. We ate an incredible dinner along with our host’s husband, who didn’t speak English but was effective at convincing me to drink shots of ‘Chacha,’ the famously potent Georgian spirit.
Zhabeshi – Adishi
I woke up to the sound of rain tapping on the window, an extremely heavy pair of legs, and a burning sensation in my shoulders. Luckily, the trek to Adishi promised to be relatively relaxing.
After a cold shower, some strong Georgian cheese, and a couple of slices of Hachapuri, we set off. Leaving Zhabeshi began with a steep uphill path along a well-trodden track used by trekkers and shepherds that would lead us to the Tenuldi ski resort.
The track diverted into dense woodland. The air immediately became more humid, and sweat started to trickle down my back as I battled through the branches overgrowing the muddy path.
At this point, I was fairly certain we’d wandered off course at some point as the path led into dried-up steam leading further up into the increasingly dense forest. We pushed on, assuming that as long as we were climbing, we would eventually reach a clearing and be able to spot the ski resort’s lifts.
An hour of trudging through the woods, battling with branches and humidity, followed. Just as we were starting to lose hope, the riverbed ended, and a steep bank blocked our path.
With no possible way around the bank and our patience running low, we decided to try and scrabble up, grabbing onto old roots and digging our feet into the loose soil. A very unprofessional few minutes of climbing ended in success. We emerged just meters away from an empty bar skiers flock to during the winter.
The chances of getting lost dropped dramatically as we could follow the overgrown skiing pistes for the next few kilometers, which later turned into a clear flat path. At around 2500 meters, the route was spectacular, with a clear view of Mt Ushba and uninterrupted grasslands.
As we slowly began our decline, old houses and Svan towers began to dot the wilderness, assuring us that Adishi was close.
Adishi is the gateway to the longest and most stunning stretch of the Mestia-Ushguli walk. Unfortunately, our experience in the town was stained by a particularly unpleasant host called ‘Elisabeth.’
Elisabeth’s guest house claimed to offer a lot for a reasonable price; WiFi, hot water, dinner, an English-speaking host, and breakfast. Elisabeth was relatively friendly up until the moment we checked in. She suddenly forgot how to speak English and ignored us when we asked why there was no hot water or where we could find towels; she growled and skulked away.
Eventually ‘Liz called us down for dinner, where her brother, a particularly irritating tour guide, spent the entire time trying to show off with his fabricated stories. We ate quickly and got some rest.
Farewell to ‘Liz
We ate breakfast with ‘Liz and a few of her family members, including her brother, who immediately told us about how well he knows Berlin in front of a few German guests from Leipzig.
As we stood up, ‘Liz suddenly spoke fantastic English again and attempted to charge us exactly double the rate we had agreed on. I politely replied, stating I was only willing to pay the agreed amount. ‘Liz flipped out. She was horrified by my response and almost became hysterical, lecturing me on how hard her life was and calling me a ‘terrible tourist.’
She eventually accepted we weren’t going to budge, and we handed over the agreed amount and a couple of dollars extra.
Needless to say ‘Liz didn’t wave us goodbye; instead, I received a message from her via Booking.com a week later insulting me and telling me to come back and collect my money. I can only assume my refund is still waiting for me in Adishi.
Despite the slightly bizarre start to the day, we were excited at the prospect of leaving Adishi and making it to the Chkhunderi pass.
We left Adishi following a narrow path along the banks of a semi-arid river bed. We knew that the water level would gradually rise as we approached the foot of the glacier just below the Chkhunderi pass.
Within an hour, the path had ended, and we were now trekking along the dry flanks of the river. By the time we’d reached the end of the valley and the beginning of the ascent to Chkhunderi, the gentle trickle of water had become a raging torrent several feet high.
Fortunately, a group of entrepreneurial locals were waiting by the crossing with half a dozen horses. I’m not much of a horse person, but I didn’t fancy my chances solo. We handed over a few dollars worth of Lari, and, with a couple of slaps to the behind, the apprehensive horses carried us across the white water.
From the far side of the river bank, the climb began. A muddy track led through an extremely overgrown path where the mosquitoes and flies didn’t give us a moment of peace. After what felt like a lifetime of battling up the brutal incline, the path cleared, and we caught our first glimpse of the Adishi glacier.
The sight was overwhelming, the sun beating down on the valley, perfect blue skies, the endless snow-capped peaks, and a giant wall of ice that looked like it was alive as it slowly drifted down the mountainside, forming an enormous river of dark-grey ice.
The silence was occasionally interrupted by giant hunks of ice ripping free and tumbling toward the river we’d crossed just minutes prior.
Although it felt like the day’s most important milestone had been achieved, we’d only just gotten started. The Chkhunderi pass was still hours away, and to be frank, the route to the peak looked nothing short of agonizing.
An hour came and went. The loose gravel path wound towards the peak at a painfully slow pace in a series of steep cutbacks. Our heavy packs were slowing us down badly, and watching the sun slowly move lower toward the horizon only added to the pressure.
The 2700-meter pass finally came into view several hours after we’d turned our backs on the glacier. Like so many times on this trek, the pain in our shoulders and legs was quickly washed away by the raw beauty of Georgia.
From the pass, not only was the full scale of the Adishi glacier visible but several of the most brutal-looking mountain peaks felt within touching distance.
We arrived in Iprali an hour after losing the sun. Cold but overwhelmed by what we’d seen, it was time for a couple of shots of chacha and some khachapuri.
The final day had arrived. It was just as well. Our giant bags had become a running joke along the route, both between us and occasionally with our hosts. Ushguli awaited.
The journey to Ushguli was flat and straightforward as, for much of the day, we followed a dirt road that by mid-day was fairly busy with lazy tourists who’d decided to skip the walk from Mestia and drive directly to Ushguli.
In typical Georgian fashion, every second car pulled over offering us a lift, but we gathered all our willpower and politely declined, determined to finish what we’d started. The first ‘Ushguli’ signpost filled me with joy as I fantasized about separating myself from my bag for the next few days.
Ushguli is a mystical place. You can feel that thousands of years have passed since the first person decided to settle next to the little river and farm the land. Dozens of ancient Svan towers little the town, and nowhere along the route do they look more authentic and forgotten than here.
We walked into Ushguli gleefully. After dropping our bags, we reflected on the past four days. The Caucasus mountains offered us more than we could’ve imagined. Untouched nature, glaciers, incredible food, and a sense that countless more secrets are hiding under the shadows cast by the Svan towers.
Following our profound reflections, something else becomes embarrassingly clear. The only way to get to Tbilisi was by driving back to Mestia and catching an early bus the next day. So, if you plan on taking on this trek, pack a light and leave your bulky laptop in Mestia.