After spending two fascinating days in Tbilisi, we arrived in Zugdidi by night train. The marshrutka (minibus) at 7am transported us from Zugdidi train station to Mestia Georgia. The scenic journey through narrow roads well made up for the agony of the roller coaster ride in marshrutka.
Arrival in Mestia
In Mestia Georgia, the late April sun was shining bright on the distant Caucasus peaks. I was eager to explore the range around Svaneti. The highest inhabited area in the Caucasus, Mestia serves as a base for hikes and treks into the surrounding mountains. From the center of Mestia it is possible to hike up the glaciers at the foot of Mount Ushba. The laid back officer at the inquiry center shared information about the hiking routes, pointing out casually the danger of avalanches. It was still early in the season for the office to expect hikers.
Located Northwest from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, Mestia is the ‘capital’ of Upper Svaneti. The region inhabited by the Svans is made up of around 10 villages. The snow capped mountains create an idyllic backdrop for the villages scattered across pristine Alpine meadows. Despite of being Georgians, the Svans are known for their distinct language and cuisine.
Svan Tower in Mestia
Tucked in the Caucasus range, the villages around Mestia are dotted with Svan towers. The picturesque Svan Towers are the symbol of Svanetia. The towers are unique defensive structures from the Middle Ages. All Svansky towers look almost identical; a square tapered stone structure of around 25 meters in height. Historically each house had a similar tower which served as a refuge for families during conflicts. The towers were used as sentry posts in case of an attack. The villagers would light fire in the tower, and the smoke would send warning to the neighbours. Mestia Georgia has the highest number of surviving Svan towers, the youngest one is believed to be 200 years old.
We began the day in Mestia exploring these unique stone towers. With help of our guide Andria, we were allowed inside one of the towers. The dingy tower looked unstable and the idea of climbing was far from reality, with no structure in place to actually climb it. After marveling over this ancient defence we ventured into the village. The locals were eager to invite us into their homes. Everyone seemed to know Andria and we were treated like special guests. The friendly villagers offered tea and bread, they also offered us their home for a night stay. The smell of warm bread being baked in the courtyard reminded me of the walk around Itchan Kala in Khiva, Uzbekistan.
The next stop was Svaneti Historical-Ethnographic Museum in the afternoon. Founded in 1936, the museum houses one of the oldest New Testament manuscripts in Georgian. The museum collection of historical artifacts from the Svaneti region included unique iconostasis and engravings, collection of manuscripts, pottery, silverware, coins and weapons from the medieval ages depicting the life in Svaneti. The evening ended in conversation with curious villagers over bottles of Georgian wines and Khinkali (meat dumplings).
Trekking in Mestia
I was excited to explore the uninhabited region of Chaladi Glacier the next day. The hike to the glacier was planned as a day long excursion. The well marked trail ran along the river. The 9 km hike from Mestia Georgia seemed like an easy climb. The initial rough terrain gave way to beautiful landscape with Chaladi Glacier peeping through the forest. The sunny weather permitted us to go all the way to the top. The last bit of climb in soft snow and over the ice slowed us down, but the stunning vistas lured us to carry on. A day before we were warned of the danger of falling boulders as the snow had started melting under the bright sun. But we obviously had forgotten the risk of avalanches, choosing to focus only on staring at the nature at its glorious best. Chaladi Glacier stood majestically in front of us after 3 hours to climb. We were rewarded with rugged panorama of Alpine landscape adorned with snow capped mountains.
After a day long hike, we returned to the guest house with breathtaking images of Caucasus. Back in Mestia I was looking forward to a sumptuous Georgian dinner. I was mainly waiting for Khachapuri but there was none. We gorged on other Georgian delicacies, which were quite different from the ones i had devoured in Tbilisi. The dinner with Khinkali (meat-filled dumpling) & Khalia (beef stew) filled our hungry souls.
The hospitality at Eka’s Guesthouse was beyond imagination. The family members of Eka were warm and welcoming. Everyone spoke fluent English, and that definitely made us feel at home. My dream of Khachapuri was fulfilled the next morning when i was pleasantly surprised to find the cheesy delight served at breakfast. The smell of melting Sulguni cheese lingered on for quite sometime after the trip.
Trekking around Svaneti
The excursion to Mountain Ushba was planned the next day. Mazeri, a mountain village surrounded by stunningly beautiful landscapes, is the starting point for several exciting Svaneti trekking routes. The Ushba Glacier trek ran along the river Dolra. Walking across pristine alpine meadows, i could not stop staring at the clear sky. I was awestruck, i had never seen such alluring clear blue sky before. We took a break at one of the guests houses and gorged on traditional Svanetian food. From Mazeri it took us 6 hours of walking to reach the summit of Mount Ushba Glacier. The gorgeous panorama from 2700 meters left us spellbound. We hurriedly started the descent after few minutes on the top as the breeze from the valley was piercing through the trekking gear.
Our guide informed us that we were close to Becho pass, which was used by ethnic Russians to travel between Georgia and Russia over centuries. It was like witnessing a lost chapter of the Georgian history. Even now many Russian climbers arrive in Svaneti through Becho pass.
Back at Eka’s Guesthouse the love and warmth continued to pour in till our departure the next morning. I had never imagined i would be trekking in such a remote region in the world. As an avid trekker the enchanting beauty of untouched terrain of Svaneti left lasting impressions on my mind.
Interesting facts about Mestia Georgia
- Situated 456 kilometers from Tbilisi, Mestia is a starting point for most treks in Svaneti region
- April is the first month when sun starts shining in Svaneti after months of hibernation during winter
- We were pleasantly surprised to find most of the town inhabitants speaking fluent English
- Ushba Glacier trek is lined with several mineral water springs which are known for their healing properties.
Spending time in Tbilisi is a great way to connect with the Georgian culture! Read more about Things to do in Tbilisi.