Adventures in the Caucasus

We’ve heard about Svaneti before, it’s the most traditional of Georgia’s regions that has managed to keep it’s authenticity so far. “During the many invasions of Georgia over the centuries, icons and other religious valuables were brought to this isolated region for safekeeping, and a significant number remain in private homes today. Svaneti also has a rich church-art heritage of its own, and many tiny village churches boast frescoes 1000 years old. This mountain retreat, with its own unwritten language, largely unintelligible to other Georgians, is regarded as a bastion of Georgian traditions, as can be witnessed at the numerous Svan festivals of which probably the most famous is Kvirikoba.” (Lonely Planet, 2018)

It wouldn’t be us if we were doing the same tour everyone else does and because it seems much more exciting to do a circular tour from Kutaisi via the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea and back to the airport, we take a local marshrutka minibus northwards to Lentekhi.

Although it’s barely 100km from Kutaisi, it seems like a world away. The drive is adventurous already and we’re the only passengers to come along for the whole 4 hours trip, stopping to load and unload bread, parcels, matrasses and packages of cement. Our Georgian skills are non-existent, Russian pretty much the same (although there are certain tiny similarities with German such as machine for car, super for super and matrassi for mattress;) and so we need to rely on body language, which still works fine to ask for a bunch of fresh grapes and a toilet. It gets a bit more complicated when we need to explain our driver that we are happy to (hitch)hike our way to the next village 20kms away and practically impossible to convince the local policemen we’re not staying in his guesthouse for the night.

Against all expectations, another marshrutka drives by all of a sudden after a while and stops for us – to take us all the way to Mele where the paved road has long ended and is now starting to get navigable only by 4×4 cars.

The driver lets us out at a lovely guesthouse with a big garden full of flowers, animals and even a hammock. A charming business-minded host has figured it all out and speaks Georgian into her phone only to have us listen to Google Translates voice in English *wow to the power of technology* . She gets us excited by talking about going to hunt into the woods at night and cleverly asks us how much we can sped when we ask how much the price is for the night. After a tea and borscht … or whatever that Russian broth soup is called … we’re almost convinced to stay and when she opens to us the possibility to get a free ride with her relatives who’re going into the woods tomorrow near Tsana, the next village on the map some 25km away, we’re in. Deal done.

To end this first day on the road, we’re strolling around the village a little bit, excited about the chicken, pigs, cows, ducks and horses everywhere.

The following day, 7am on the dot, as agreed, the big truck is driving up and we jump on …. Not in to the driver’s cabin (it’s full), not via an open back side ramp, no just climbing up into the rack body of the truck and there we go. Good by Layla, thank you very much for your kindness, we loved your place.

It’s a bumpy ride, huge holes in the dirt track, mud and lumps of rock, acclivities und steep parts downhill. The driver stops in front of a pear tree and we get an extra snack for on the way.

After a good hour drive we finally get off the truck and stark hiking, looking towards snow-covered peaks in front of us … what a wonderful panorama.

Not much happening in Tsana when we arrive there around 9am and so we continue straight up the mountain as the sun finally reaches the sternmost corners of the Koruldashi valley. One car comes our way and we have a nice conversation with a couple travelling in a 4×4, curious what brings us here. We reach the Zagar Pass at 2,600+ metres above sealevel just after midday and soon look down towards the village of Ushguli in Upper Svaneti with the famous Svan towers (defense towers from the early Middle Ages).

Ushguli has a few different settlements and we explore them walking around, watching the sun set and enjoying this magnificently peaceful atmosphere high up in the Caucasus mountains. Our host Oliver and his family make us feel at home, the fact they can’t offer reliable electricity is forgotten by the lovely surprise of hot water in the shower. A beautiful sunrise over the Shakal Mountain – with 5,680m Georgia’s highest mountain – and delicious big breakfast in the morning make up for it all.

We hike to the village of Ipraali that’s a bit lower down, a lovely dog comes with us for half the way (we call her Neginha) but she gets some bread and cuddles from us she seems to change her mind and follows another group of hikers back to Ushguli. In Ipraali we eat Svaneti’s famous dish Kubdari to have enough energy for the 19km hike to Adiishi.

It’s a strenuous but very beautiful hike. We are lucky to get a free ride for part of the first bit, a rough road steep uphill in plain sunshine around lunchtime. A couple of hours later we arrive at the foot of Chkhunderi pass. There’s now a new path from Ushguli directly to the end of the Khaldechala valley across the Southern Karetta pass and other mountains, certainly an interesting option in this amazing mountain weather.

The hike up is quite tiring but worth every step for the amazing/gorgeous views we get on top of it at around 2,700m above sealevel. Incredible views far and near towards the Adiishi Glacier.

Down in the valley we can already see Adiishi, another 2-3 hours hike away. After a steep downhill section through Rhododendron fields/bushes, we arrive at the icy river, coming straight from the glacier. It’s almost sunset, no one else is here and so we need to find the best way across the water by ourselves. Apparently closer to the mountain is easier so we continue walking upstream but it keeps looking better from below and when one actually reaches the respective spot, it looks awfully difficult to cross. Time is flying, the sun is setting and now we really don’t have much time left before darkness sets in.

We take our clothes off in order to avoid getting everything wet, Daniel crosses first and somehow gets out the other end, a couple of metres further downstream. When I try to throw over the backpack I horribly fail and the adventure starts … fate takes its course.

I can’t watch our backpack with the passports, wallets, phone and more inside drifting downstream way to quickly and whizzing away; I start running. It feels like someone carries me over the tricky rocks, I’m almost levitating over them so fast and from the corner of my eye I realize I do have a chance to catch the backpack as the river bends slightly and I can simply run straight down, jump into the freezing water that reaches all the way over my belly button and can’t wait for the bag to float into my arms. A couple of seconds later I catch it and balance myself to the other side of the riverbank. The bag has at least 15kg now, 3 times its normal weight and I can’t believe I actually just did that.

Brining the backpack into safe distance from the river I run back upstream to Daniel, and we discuss for a minute what to do next. Actually, there is no option than going back through the river to the other side to get our other rucksack over. We wouldn’t wanna walk into Adiishi over an hour away without clothes, no shoes and even in the dark.

Pumped with adrenaline I don’t really feel the cold – almost the contrary and I know I have to act fast while the shock numbs everything else.

Remembering my recent Laughter Yoga Workshop I start breathing heavily and trick my body into laughing so that it opens up to creative thinking, away from the obviously horrible situation I find myself in. It somehow works, I position Dani well but thankfully don’t need any emergency saving in the end. We can’t believe our luck … Glück im Unglück, as we say in Austria. Shaking all over my body I get into dry clothes and we make our way down to Adiishi where we stay at Gunter’s Guesthouse. Lana is our host and she has an enormously big heart, hosting us and preparing camp beds on the floor for us although she’s already over capacity and has all hands full cooking and caring for different groups of hikers. She and the family can’t quite believe we actually come from the river right now, water is usually up to people’s chins and many hikers get into dramatic situations, therefore it’s become normal now for people to cross with horses … well well, that might indeed have been a good idea, I reckon.

Gunter is the happiest man (or should I say child?) on Earth as Daniel gives him our headtorch as a present, he’s loving it!

The next day is another lovely hike up to Mt Tednuldi to about 2,700m above sealevel, we’re surrounded by snow-covered peaks and the wonderful sunny weather makes it a true joy to be up there before we make our way down into Zabeshi village and hitchhike out to Mestia.

We were hoping to catch a Marshrutka down the mountains but decide to stay for the night and then take a direct minibus to Kutaisi. The town is out of electricity and so we pay our romantic candle-lit accommodation with an extant 20€ bill and our driver is happy to pay him the ride to Batumi once we arrive there … b/c … to electricity not ATM 😉

Wohooo, what a crazy adventure, hiking in the Caucasus mountains. I’ve got enough for now but already looking forward to where our next trip will take us!

What an adventure it has been. I’d fully recommend this to anyone who’s curious to explore a bit off the beaten track and immerse themselves in whatever the journey has to offer. It’s so much fun to go with whatever comes along, not just paying for a guide, a car and a driver, going the same path and direction everyone else does but let yourself be surprised and enjoy what’s coming your way – the beauty of the landscapes, the hospitality of the locals, the challenges nature might have in store for you. It’s been wonderful – thank you very much to my partner Daniel, to the guardian angels watching over us and the wonderful locals helping us along the way.

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