After returning from Racha on October 31, I had spent 17 full days in Zugdidi and was getting a little stir-crazy. The solution, of course, was to go to the mountains. Zugdidi is the gateway to Svaneti, one of the famed mountain regions of Georgia. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision; snow was forecasted for the whole weekend so I was hesitant to commit to a guesthouse before soliciting opinions from local friends. No one seemed alarmed by the idea, so I sent it.
Day I: The Marshrutka
I planned to get to the marshrutka at 9:30 to save myself a seat. That was the easy part – I knew I’d have to wait for the seats to be filled before we took off. I was expecting to wait for an hour or so, but it turned out to be 12:30 by the time we left. That’s how I ended up drinking homemade wine from an eight-liter water jug, a slurred offer from a Georgian man and his brothers, with a Frenchman at 11:00 am. We politely declined a second pour and I practiced my Georgian language skills by placating the increasingly forward compliments k’ai gogo, lamazi gogo! and negotiating my seat placement once we boarded the marshrutka.
I learned that Guillaume, the Frenchman, was in the middle of a long trip around the world. We swapped travel stories as I ignored the incoherent sounds coming from the man seated across the aisle who insisted Ty vse ponimayesh’! after I told him “I don’t understand” each time he tried speaking Russian with me. When he wasn’t talking to me, he was yelling at the driver, Vax’o! Vax’o! VAX’O! until Vaxo turned around and shouted Ehh! back at him, like a Georgian iteration of Statler and Waldorf. About an hour into the drive, after three bathroom breaks, we suddenly stopped. Vaxo insisted the passenger exit and we left him on the side of the road with his jug of wine.
The absence of the drunk man someone improved the marshrutka environment but for the duration of the drive up the mountainous and winding Zugdidi-Jvari-Mestia-Lasdili Road, my nerves were shot. Luckily there was no snow on the pass, but the driver often had to veer around rockslide debris putting the vehicle close to the guardrail. (At least there was a guardrail!) After a four-hour journey, Guillaume and I arrived in Mestia unscathed. The marshrutka stopped at the city center and we were quickly approached by guides hoping to fill their Jeeps and Mitsubishi Delicas for tours to Ushguli. Ushguli is a collection of villages sitting at almost 7,000 feet elevation at the base of Shkhara, the highest point in Georgia. In the summer, many tourists complete a four-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli staying in guesthouses along the route. I didn’t plan to reach Ushguli this weekend as I assumed it was mostly inaccessible in the late fall and winter, and I plan to do the trek in June, anyway.
Meals & Accomodation
Over a delicious dinner of Svan cuisine at Cafe Laila, Guillaume and I considered the fair price for the tour (50 GEL) but decided it would be better to use Sunday’s clear forecast to hike without assistance from any vehicles. Our meal was so good I forgot to snap a photo! We shared Svan chvishtari (pan-fried cornbread and cheese) and tashmijabi (stretchy potatoes and cheese), which we paired with ostri (Georgian beef stew) and Saperavi wine. I think it was the best restaurant meal I’ve had in Georgia so far!
I reserved a room for two nights at Nino Ratiani’s Guesthouse through booking.com for 80 GEL. I was impressed by the reviews of the guesthouse and Nino’s hospitality, which proved to be true. I was treated to cake and tea when I arrived. The room was clean and cozy. There was even a sauna! The guesthouse offers a delicious full breakfast each morning for 20 GEL.
Day II: The Hike
Guillaume kindly included me in his plans to hike to the Koruldi Lakes, about a ten-mile trek with a 4,593-foot elevation change. In summer and late fall, you can pay 50 GEL per person for a Jeep ride to the lakes, but we were determined to go by foot. I grabbed some snacks at Spar and at 8:30, we walked through the village to the trailhead. A gorgeous German Shepherd husky hopped down from the doorstep of a house we passed and became our companion, racing ahead and waiting for us on the trail.
The first part of the hike was to a cross that overlooks Mestia. AllTrails described this section as “difficult,” but the mountain really didn’t seem that intimidating. I quickly learned that this trail did not have the luxury of sensible switchbacks and instead was a steep, unrelenting climb – 2,624 feet elevation gain over roughly two miles. As I was gasping for air an embarrassingly short time into the hike, I was horrified to realize I’ve been living at an elevation of 328 feet in Zugdidi, a far cry from the 3,209 feet elevation in Missoula. My legs didn’t feel especially exerted but my lungs were in overdrive. After about an hour and a half, we finally reached the cross and I was pleased to find snow on the ground and incredible views of the Caucasus.
After a break, we decided to continue as far as we could in the snow. At the top of Tshakazagari mountain, we reached a few mountain huts and a cafe that were shuttered for the winter. Soon after, we were hiking across a thin layer of fresh snow. I was so happy to breathe in the fresh mountain air and the exertion I felt at the beginning of the hike completely disappeared. Guillaume threw snowballs at the devoted dog who was rolling in the snow while he waited for us to catch up. Twice, an enormous raptor soared above us. (I think it was a Eurasian griffon vulture – I’m trying to study up on birds of prey in the Caucasus!)
We reached the first “lake,” finding only a small pond covered in ice. The appeal of Koruldi Lakes is not the lakes themselves, but rather the views of Mount Ushba. As we continued on, the snow came past our ankles. Guillaume offered to lead so I could step into his footprints. (We had dry socks to change into!) Eventually, we reached a small ridge and the snow reached just below our knees. The road we were following became less clear, but we could make out a collection of old footprints through the new snow. It didn’t look promising, but Guillaume was determined to try our luck and I had no problem following, literally, in his footsteps. After about 5 minutes of post-holing, we admitted defeat about a quarter mile from the lakes a little at 8,000 feet in elevation. We stopped for a moment to take in the cerulean sky dominated by the twin peaks of Mount Ushba. I’ve never heard such clear silence in an expansive, beautiful place. Guillaume and I turned around and the dog accompanied us all the way back to town.
Day III: The Marshrutka (Reprise)
On Monday, I was surprised to discover I wasn’t very sore from the hike. The descent from the cross was difficult and hard on the knees, but I didn’t feel it. I did wake up with a pit in my stomach, dreading the marshrutka ride back to Zugdidi. There’d be no nice Frenchman to keep me company this time. I had time in the morning to take a walk and stretch my legs before going to the city center to find the marshrutka at 12:00. I would’ve liked to stay in Mestia forever to avoid the ride back down the mountain pass. But I couldn’t and spent the next four hours trying to quell my anxiety, the only passenger wearing a seatbelt. We arrived in Zugdidi, which was covered in a layer of smog, and I walked the 20 minutes to my house with my pack instead of taking a taxi because the thought of being in another moving vehicle made me sick.
I’ve been thinking about Mestia ever since. I’ll return there with friends for Christmas and am already dreaming about the snow-covered town and cold, refreshing mountain air.