Flashback: When I Became An Experienced Hiker

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October 13th 2013
Published: July 22nd 2014
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The Inguri DamThe Inguri DamThe Inguri Dam

Enough energy for the whole of Georgia
This is a 9-month late story but a story anyway. In October 2013 my girlfriend, who we'll call M, and I, flew out from Katowice to Kutaisi, Georgia for 2 weeks, finally giving me a chance to explore somewhere which isn't in or being considered for accession to the European Union. The flight arrived at some strange hour in the morning and it was one of about 5 flights per week to serve the airport, but that didn't stop the airport being chock full of taxi and minibus drivers ready to shout city names at you as soon as you got through passport control. "Kutaisi city centre, 10 euros for two people!", offered one taxi driver. We knew that sounded a bit expensive, so we tried to negotiate. "Okay, okay! So I will take you for 5 euros for one person!"

We eventually joined a minibus-full of Polish tourists which took us to Kutaisi. Kutaisi is the second largest city in Georgia but there wasn't a lot to do there. We got dropped at Kutaisi-2 railway station and walked into the centre as the morning light began to appear. After a day exploring the city centre a bit, we got
A typical Svanetian house in MestiaA typical Svanetian house in MestiaA typical Svanetian house in Mestia

Traditionally, whoever had the tallest tower was the most powerful.
3 hours of sleep on a slow as hell elektrichka which took us to Zugdidi, where we were originally planning to spend the night, but fortunately (especially fortunately since the city didn't look pleasant at all) a minibus to Mestia appeared about 10 minutes after we arrived. The minibus driver was a friendly guy who made his best effort to communicate to us despite us knowing bare minimum in Russian (I at least can read Cyrillic and had also crammed the Georgian alphabet into my head before coming). Three hours and two stops later, one at the second largest hydroelectric dam in the world and one at a café which no one except a bus driver could have known existed, we arrived in Mestia and were shown to a guesthouse by the driver which was either his aunt's or his cousin's home, we couldn't quite work it out. But she was very pleasant and cooked us all kinds of stuff to eat that night and the next morning.

This was to be our style for the next few days, sleeping in peoples' houses and being cooked for by them. The usual asking price is 20 Lari (8 Euros) for beds, and 10 Lari for each meal. We soon worked out that the 10 Lari for each meal isn't worth it, especially in Mestia where there are restaurants you can eat at for cheaper. The next day we stayed in Mestia and explored the city and its surroundings. We got horribly lost trying to walk upto "the hill with the cross on it" in front of Mount Ushba (4,710m) by getting confused as to what was a path and what was a trail created by wild cows grazing in the area. There are more cows in Upper Svaneti than people by a long shot. We finally made our way back to the town in time for dinner and got an early night.

The next morning, we set off on day 1 of 4 of our trek to Ushguli. Any guide you'll find will break this trek up into four parts, Mestia - Zhabeshi - Adishi - Iprari - Ushguli. Some break it up into three parts, either Mestia - Adishi - Iprari - Ushguli (I don't understand how doing Mestia to Adishi in one day is remotely possible) or Mestia - Zhabeshi - Adishi - Ushguli (we managed to
Chvabiani, Zhabeshi and various other villagesChvabiani, Zhabeshi and various other villagesChvabiani, Zhabeshi and various other villages

and the double-headed Mount Ushba in the background
do it this way, but the last day was tough). The first part, from Mestia to Zhabeshi, is actually pretty arbitrary because this is the only part of the trek where you pass multiple villages. You have to walk straight at the mountain to the left of Tetnuldi, whose name I can't remember, along a stream, and then turn around 180 and start walking up a hill. Some streams over the valley are difficult to cross so good walking boots are essential. The trail is marked, but the markings become sparse in the wilderness. Eventually you start passing villages and descending back down again. People in the villages at the top of the valley will try to offer you food, you can if you wanna, but they will want a lot of money for it. We also managed to hitch-hike through a few of the villages thanks to a bunch of young guys who were picking pears, and tried to unload about a whole 5 kilograms of them on us as a gift! (We politely refused). There are a few villages at the far end of the valley where you can stay. We stayed in Chvabiani, which is before Zhabeshi,

As seen from the pass between Zhabeshi and Adishi
and in our opinion better placed for the onward walk in any case. Do be careful to respect the conservative values out here - walking through Chvabiani hand-in-hand was a reason enough for the locals to take time out from herding cows across the village to give us disapproving stares.

When outside of Mestia and Ushguli, you will have to rely on the families you stay with to give you food. For the most part, the food was amazingly good, and I am a very fussy eater. The only thing I recommend against is accepting any meat. We got offered meat at one of our guesthouses and it was a plate of fried inner organs, something which I gather is a delicacy in Turkey when served and prepared properly, but certainly not in this case, where it was just a load of random animal parts thrown into a frying pan. That was in Adishi after a bloody difficult walk. The section between Zhabeshi and Adishi is the easiest part to get lost on. A couple of Israeli girls who were staying at our guesthouse in Chvabiani decided to hire a guide for 70 lari, we decided to go with our map and compass and hope for the best. We basically ended up following their guide's footprints for the first part of the walk, where it really isn't clear where the path leads. Once you start heading up to the mountain pass and over it becomes clearer. The mountains are especially beautiful when seen from high up, and on this day I broke 2,000m altitude for the first time in my life. This pass takes Tetnuldi out of your sight and leaves you with Shkhara (5,201m), Georgia's highest mountain, looming in front.

The stay in Adishi will be the most expensive because you will need to hire a horse for the first part of the ride the next day. This actually gives you a nice rest the next morning as the horse will be able to carry your bags for the first part of the day. It is necessary to cross the river at the Adishi glacier, which would have to be crossed on foot at a stupidly early time (around 4am after a cold night) to have any chance of being safe. You can also hire the horse to take you all the way up to the pass, but it really isn't worth it. The couple in front of us had done this, and although the horse droppings reassure you you're still on the right path, it isn't necessary, the path is clear enough. The walk up to the pass is difficult, however, and patience is required, as is a lot of sunscreen. The top of the pass being at 2,272m made the highest altitude I have ever climbed. Once over the pass, the way to Iprari is clear. Once you get down you have options either to stay in Iprari or keep going to Ushguli, which is around 4 hours away by foot. If you choose to keep going, make sure you stock up on supplies - there's a home-run store in Iprari.

On our way to Ushguli we met a Russian motorcyclist who told us to come to the same guesthouse he was at when he arrived, and that we still had 6km to go. Those last 6km took us through the sunset and the dark into that state of restlessness, which can be lethal, as when you finally get to the village your relief gives you the illusion of more strength than you really

Those looming clouds would later stop us from hiking over any more passes.
have. We arrived to the sight of a Marshrutka having fallen into a stream. We found the Russian guy, eventually, and walked into the guesthouse past a dog sleeping peacefully on the rug outside. Halfway through dinner after coming back from a short wonder, M complained that she was sick and wanted to go to sleep. She later elaborated that she had seen the owner of the guesthouse boot that dog with brute force out of the house. After seeing how well most of the animals lived in Svaneti - the region is the promised land if you're a wild cow - it was a bit upsetting.

The next day we attempted to climb over yet another pass to the village of Chvelpi in Lower Svaneti. This is a bad idea unless you are a very experienced hiker. The path is unmarked, and part of it follows a stream which is steep and frozen, very difficult to climb and, as we found later as the clouds loomed over us making walking over the pass look like a bad idea, absolute hell to descend. We eventually returned to Ushguli and after a small incident involving a dog nearly attacking M, got straight on a marshrutka to Mestia and spent that night back at our first guesthouse, eating in the local restaurant. At the restaurant we ran into the young group who had tried to give us the pears, as well as the Israeli couple, who seemed not to want to talk to us. All in all it was a perfect end to a great trip, finally having some good food and beer, and I felt the healthiest I had felt for a long time. I envy the people of Svaneti in a way, able to benefit from tourism like this in an already successful micro-economy depending solely on how productive the herd is. Most people we stayed with seemed to be reaping the benefits, fitting their 200 year old wooden houses out with enormous LCD televisions and satellite dishes, and driving shiny new jeeps.

We spent a further week and a half in Georgia, went through Kutaisi twice more and explored most of what the city has to offer (cathedral, amusement park) as well as the Sataplia nature reserve and its preserved dinosaur footprints. We spent a few days in Tbilisi including a day trip to Devit Gareja, all of which was fantastic, and then spent some time by the western coast, which was the low point. We wanted to go to a nature reserve near Poti but were told it was off-season and inaccessible except by boat, so we went to Batumi which is basically a city of gulf kitsch. There are a lot of interesting new buildings all over Georgia, there is even an ubiquitous book with pictures of them all in which you can find in a lot of cafés, but we got the idea a lot of them had not been built properly. While waiting in Makhinjauri railway station in Batumi (one such building) during a rain shower there were at least 6 buckets stationed around the walls to stop the rain leaking through the roof.

Another thing we struggled with was finding good accommodation. Outside of Svaneti, we looked online for the cheapest places to stay. Don't do this - the cheapest places are the cheapest for a reason. We had a seriously unclean guesthouse in Tbilisi with a creepy voyeurist owner, and a "hostel" in Kutaisi which was really just the home of a very angry racist woman. On the other hand, in Batumi and in Mestia too, we successfully found good accommodation by asking taxi/marshrutka drivers, and our taxi driver in Batumi told us that most drivers have spare flats that they rent out to tourists. This is how I would recommend finding places, especially since only a small fraction of Georgian guesthouse owners will advertise their places online.

I certainly hope to visit Georgia again.


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