Svaneti is a rugged region in north-west Georgia that remained isolated for much of its history. Today, it welcomes hikers from all corners of the world: most head to the Upper Valley that lies between the central Caucasus Mountains and the Svaneti range and is famous for its picturesque mountain villages and the unique defensive tower houses dotted across its landscape. Originally built between the 9th and 12th centuries as dwellings and defence posts against the invaders who plagued the region, the towers stand in perfect counterpoint to the surrounding peaks and provide a mythical allure to the scenery. This is Game of Thrones territory: captivating, timeless and entirely unforgettable.
In terms of long distance hikes, the most popular route in Svaneti is the four-day trek between Mestia and Ushguli. The path between the towns is in good condition and you can either find guesthouse accommodation in any of the small villages along its route or pitch your tent in one of the many great camping spots. If you have a reasonable level of fitness, you could easily complete the walk in three days and / or augment your trip with one or more day walks. We actually hiked the 'alternative' Mestia-Ushguli route and added some extra mileage to create an eight-day itinerary. I've described our route in more detail below but we essentially added two days to the beginning by starting in Mazeri (a village west of Mestia) and two days at the end by finishing in Chvelpi (a tiny village south of Ushguli). These extra sections turned out to be some of the best walking of the trip.
It's now easier than ever to get to Georgia with direct flights from the UK. It's also relatively straightforward getting around the country: there is a comprehensive network of bus routes and the roads have clearly been improved in recent years.
I took an overnight flight with Georgian Airways from London to Tbilisi (roughly 4.5 hours). We stayed in Tbilisi for a couple of days then took the overnight train to Zugdidi in the west of the country (around 7 hours). The train leaves from the Central Station and was quite an experience - old soviet-era carriages with very basic facilities. You should definitely book ahead, which we did in person the same morning. When you arrive at Zugdidi, at around six o'clock in the morning, there are minibuses and taxis waiting for onward transportation. Most people are heading for Mestia and there were plenty of seats available when we were travelling in late September. I would recommend setting an alarm for your arrival because the train either continues or turns around at Zugdidi so if you do manage to fall asleep you could end up missing your connection!
From Zugdidi, we asked the bus driver to drop us off at Becho (a few miles before Mestia) and from there jumped into the back of a passing pick-up truck for the final 7km to Mazeri. In all, the trip was pretty straightforward and we made it to the trailhead for 11am. In terms of the return, there are plenty of buses from Ushguli to Mestia or Kutaisi for onward transport. We finished our hike in Chvelpi in the Lower Svaneti Valley. The only bus to Kutaisi had already passed through earlier in the morning but we had no difficulties in arranging a lift with the son of a guesthouse owner for a reasonable fee (around 3.5 hours). The next day I flew back from Kutaisi to London with Wizz Air (roughly 4.5 hours).
In terms of accommodation, there is plenty of inexpensive accommodation in the region. It seems like most families open up their homes as guesthouses in the summer and bookings are generally not required (although may be recommended in the most popular months of July and August). The facilities are pretty basic and a shower and hot water is not always guaranteed. Your hosts will prepare food, though, and Georgian dinners and breakfasts provide exactly the kind of hearty (and cheese-heavy) fare that's perfect for hiking. We stayed in guesthouses in Mestia, Tsvirmi, Adishi and Ushguli.
We also camped on three nights: on the Guli pass, near the abandoned village of Khalde and on the Latpari pass. Given we were hiking in late September and two of these spots were above 2,800 metres, it did get very cold at night. But so long as you have a good sleeping bag and some thermals you should be fine. The views from Guli and Latpari were spectacular and at Guli we woke to a truly unforgettable sunrise. Our night at Latpari was also unforgettable but for very different reasons (see below). Neither spot has fresh water so you'll need to fill up beforehand at the nearest spring.
In terms of language, many Georgians working at guesthouses or restaurants speak a little English and you can generally get by without any difficulties. Knowing some Russian could also be useful as this is more widely spoken. I would suggest trying out some Georgian because the locals seem genuinely impressed if you can crack out a few basic phrases.
We had a mix of weather on the trip, both sunny and clear skies as well as rain, mist, hail and even snow. The usual rules for the mountains apply: you never know what you are going to get so be prepared for anything. There are plenty of rivers and streams to fill up on water - as always, I would suggest purifying anything you get from the outdoors because it can mean the different between an enjoyable holiday or a hellish experience.
In terms of paths, the condition is variable but the main routes are generally well-maintained. The only available hiking maps of the area are pretty basic and there are not many way-marks or cairns. So having GPS (either on your phone or a GPS device) is a very good idea. We used Wikiloc on an iPhone and followed a number of different routes plotted by hikers. Make sure you take an extra battery for charging if you plan on spending a night or two away from villages.
We hiked from Mazeri in Upper Svaneti to Chvelpi in Lower Svaneti over 8 days, crossing the Svaneti range at the Latpari pass. This hike essentially combines three routes described on the excellent website http://www.caucasus-trekking.com/, which is pretty much the most comprehensive and authoritative English-language resource on trekking in Georgia and a site familiar to most of the people we met on our trip.
Day 1: Mazeri to Guli pass (10km, 5 hours)
Day 2: Guli pass to Mestia via Koruldi lakes (16km, 7 hours)
Day 3: Mestia to Tsvirmi (20km, 7 hours)
Day 4: Tsvirmi to Adishi (17km, 6.5 hours)
Day 5: Adishi to Khalde (15km, 7 hours)
Day 6: Khalde to Ushguli via Southern Karetta pass (14.5km, 6 hours)
Day 7: Ushguli to Latpari pass (13km, 6 hours)
Day 8: Latpari pass to Chvelpi (11km, 3 hours)
The route from Mazeri to Mestia is described here - http://www.caucasus-trekking.com/treks/guli. The hike can be completed in a day but the Guli pass sits at 2,974m and involves a 1,400-metre ascent from Mazeri (the descent to Mestia is a bit of a knee-cruncher too). So as a day-hike it would require an early start, a light backpack and most likely leaving out the one-hour detour to the Koruldi lakes. As described on Caucasus Trekking, we took the bus from Zugdidi to Mestia (leaving at around 6am) and asked to be dropped off at the tiny village of Becho, a few kilometres before Mestia. From Becho, it is a further 7km north to Mazeri. We found it quite straightforward to hitchhike along this road: there are several guesthouses in Mazeri and a reasonable amount of traffic to the village. We agreed a small fee with a passing driver and jumped in the back of his pick-up truck, arriving in Mazeri for 11am.
If you start at a similar time, you could either camp at the Guli pass under the mighty Ushba (there is a sheltered spot just 5 minutes from the pass) or push on to the Koruldi lakes and camp there. Do bear in mind, however, that the hike to the Guli pass is very tough and the path from the pass to the lakes can be a little rough in places - so it may be quite tiring to push on all the way to the lakes. Also, while the view from the lakes is fantastic there are currently some unsightly works being carried out nearby and you are much more likely to encounter other campers at the lakes. The sunrise from the Guli pass was probably the best I have ever seen. Mestia is a decent-sized town and a good spot to pick up supplies and spend a comfortable night.
The four-day route we took from Mestia to Ushguli is described here - http://www.caucasus-trekking.com/treks/tsvirmiushguli. This is an alternative route from the 'standard' and most-travelled route, which can be quite busy with hikers during the summer months. Whereas the standard route essentially follows the valley floor with one pass between Adishi and Iprali, the alternative route starts by following a couple mountain ridges and offers fantastic views. From Adishi, both routes are the same. We, however, took another alternative route for this last section to Ushguli (see below). It would be pretty easy to complete the trek from Mestia to Ushguli in 3 days rather than 4, but part of the enjoyment is spending time in the mountain guesthouses and seeing rural Svaneti life so I wouldn't be in a rush.
By the alternative route, from Mestia you leave town across the river and slowly climb up on to the ridge to the top of the cable car. From there it's a ridge-top walk before the descent, through stunning scenery, to Tsvirmi. The village sits on a dramatic plateau and is quite exquisite. As with all the villages in Svaneti, there are plenty of guesthouses (basic but very characterful).
From Tsvirmi, you descend a short distance before ascending on another ridge, this time taking a dirt road and some rather ugly ski runs (although the views are fantastic). Once you leave the ski runs and gain the hiking trail, things become really pleasant. There is both a lower path or a higher path to Adishi: we took the higher path, which offers great views of Tenuldi and is quieter. The descent to Adishi is sublime and your first view of the village, nestled in a lush and beautiful valley, is quite breathtaking. An isolated and rugged farming community dominated by distinctive Svan towers, Adishi is completely turned to tourism in the summer months with practically every family opening its doors as a guesthouse. Yet the village still retains an authentic atmosphere and much of its charm: it is a truly memorable place to spend a night.
From Adishi, the path continues a few kilometres up the valley to the foot of the Adishi glacier. Here, you have to ford the river: there are usually locals waiting with horses to offer a dry crossing (for a fee) but when we were hiking at the end of September the water levels were low enough to wade across. The path then climbs steadily up to the Chkhunderi pass (2655m). At the top, you can continue on a path higher along the ridge for even better views of the glacier - a highly recommended detour. Even though the weather was poor for us, a rainbow came out at just the right time. The path then descends into the next valley (equally beautiful). We chose to camp at a spot near to Khalde rather than continuing on to Iprali, as were taking the route over the Southern Karetta pass to Ushguli the next day rather than the standard route along the valley floor.
That turned out to be a bad idea. The Southern Karetta pass sits at around 2,970 metres. This is only a 700-metre ascent from the valley floor but the path is barely maintained and extremely steep. After a night camping out in the rain, it was an absolutely back-breaking climb to the top of the pass. At the top, the views of the bigger mountain were obscured by cloud. And the path on the other side was possibly worse than the ascent - here, the path is almost non-existent and even steeper. Both me and my walking companion fell over about 5 times getting over the pass. Not recommended except for the hardy.
From this route, we finally entered the Ushguli community (a collection of several small villages) from the north and opposite side to most other walkers. You will want to spend some time wandering around Ushguli: it lacks some of the charm of smaller villages like Tsvirmi and Adishi but the towers and surroundings are breathtaking and very photogenic.
Most people end their trek here and take the bus back to Mestia or Kutaisi. We, however, continued on to Chvelpi in the Lower Valley, which is described here - http://www.caucasus-trekking.com/treks/chvelpi. This could be completed as a long day hike but we chose to split it over two days and spend a night on the Latpari pass (2,830m). The hike to the pass is sublime: you climb around 1,200 metres to the top of the Svaneti range, enjoy panoramic views of the Caucasus mountains along the ridge line and then pass an idyllic mountain lake (perfect as a lunch spot). Not long after the path curves around the back of a 3,042-metre summit (not named on my map) which is easy to summit if you tackle it from the south and walk another 70 metres or so along the ridge. It's a worthy-detour - on a clear day it offers superlative 360 degree views of the surrounding peaks.
At the Latpari pass there is a lake, mountain hut and grassy area which is sheltered and perfect for camping. Ours was a memorable last night in the mountains: bitterly cold conditions, a mad dog trying to get in our tent, a drunken Georgian hunting party enjoying some target practice at 1am and a huge lightning storm opening up right above us shortly before sunrise. In the morning, we dusted the fresh snow off our tent and made a quick descent from the mountain to Chvelpi (a long downhill slog). After a quick breakfast and glass of home-brew wine at the guesthouse, we arranged a lift to Kutaisi with the owner's son. Georgia really is one hell of a country.
The view west from the Guli pass.
The panorama of the Caucasus maountains from the Svaneti range, near the Latpari pass.
Sunrise at the Guli pass