Mestia sits in the Upper Svaneti region of Georgia and it’s a major hub for mountain hiking. We checked into a really nice guesthouse for just €12 a night with cooking facilities which was a relief as we’re fed up with Georgian food and rude service already. Mestia marks the start of the very popular four day hike to Ushguli which we plan to do during our stay. Our first hike however was straight from the village up to the Koruldi Lakes. As we set off we passed a very friendly dog behind a fence and moments later he appeared behind us so he must’ve leaped over the gate. We named him Fred and he followed us for the next four hours up the mountain. The hike was tough work, relentlessly uphill for two hours until we arrived at the cross where many people get driven to. It offered us fabulous views of the mountains in all directions. There were some low clouds drifting through the valley which looked quite beautiful in the early morning but it gradually cloaked all the spiky peaks and hid them from view. We got a brief glimpse of the twin peaks of Ushba which are the standout mountains of Svaneti.
A second dog appeared out of nowhere so we called him Frank but as soon as we approached the lakes they left us for other humans with tasty food. There’s actually a dirt road that leads all the way up to the lakes which meant when we arrived, after hiking over four hours we had to share the view with a group of people who’d been driven up. The lakes themselves were nothing special but there’s usually an amazing view of the mountains reflected in the water. It wasn’t ideal conditions for us as there was too much cloud and wind for the perfect shot. The walk down was extremely tough and we ended up doing 23km….so it’s seems a little crazy that we decided to start our 4 day hike to Ushguli the next day but we had a perfect weather window so we just had to go for it.
DAY ONE | Mestia to Zhabeshi | 17km, 6.5 hours
We were treated to crisp blue skies and began a steady climb uphill which offered fabulous views of Ushba and the surrounding jagged peaks. There were some extremely steep sections through the forest but it soon opened up with a view across the next valley, dotted with little villages and a mountain backdrop.
This hike had the option of a low trail or a high one, the latter offered better views and a trip to Lakhiri, said to be one of the prettiest Svan villages so we chose that route. It was pretty hot work hiking in the sun so we stopped for lunch under a tree and accidentally sat in an ants nest. We tried to take a shortcut to Lakhiri but our route was met with farmers fences so we had to reluctantly turn back but on the plus side we found an area filled with wild strawberries which we enjoyed picking. Lakhiri, like most of the Svan villages is home to many defensive towers made of stones. Georgia had Persians, Mongols and Turks passing through the land trying to conquer it and due to the rugged terrain it was impossible to protect with defensive walls so they built these strong stone towers to live in. More recently families would barricade themselves in the towers for months during blood feuds. Once we left Lakhiri we seemed to be on the dirt road that connected all the villages and it was full of free-roaming pigs. They were absolutely everywhere; playing in mud-pools, laying in the shade or running down the road in big groups.
After about 6.5 hours we arrived in Zhabeshi and checked into Guesthouse Tanano Dodo. We were greeted by Dodo, the sweet old owner who led us upstairs to the rooms. We were the first guests to arrive today so she gave us a choice of 5 rooms, albeit we immediately cut the options down to 4 as one looked like a creepy dark hovel as it was actually built inside the old tower. The floor of the guesthouse was totally slanted and the walls between each room were just a piece of hardboard. So we picked a room and used the shower in the shared bathroom while it was available.
There was a lovely garden to sit in with two adorable piglets running around but it turns out they weren’t supposed to be there and the host asked us to help capture them. So there we were, lined up with the 70 year old hosts trying to corral the piglets. It was no use, they were way too quick for us. Craig quite enjoyed the challenge though so he was trying to shepherd them on his own with a stick and then the old man brought out a blanket and leaped through the air with it like he was saving a goal…but the piglet was still too fast. It was rather humorous to watch but they did manage to get them out the garden in the end.
More guests arrived which meant the shared bathroom now had 8 people using it but that’s just how it is in these guesthouses. Dinner was shared with the other guests so a good opportunity to meet people but the German girls we were sat opposite were so hard to talk to. I asked them so many questions and they gave one word answers and didn’t ask any questions back. On first impressions dinner looked nice with lots of variety but in reality it all tasted the same with lashings of aubergine and dill. When we went back upstairs to bed our room was really hot after having the door closed and it smelt really bad…like body odour and I was sure it wasn’t our clothes after just one day hiking. I checked – it wasn’t. So what else could it be? I decided to sniff the bedsheets and was hit with a punch of dirty armpits. Yuck!! The sheets hadn’t been cleaned! I was so angry. These guesthouses are expensive compared to the rest of Georgia and you’re inclined to buy breakfast and dinner too. So for example it cost us 70 lari for room and food per person. That’s €24 per person so the host would make around €200 just for that one night with 8 guests. That’s a lot of money in Georgia, and it’s a hell of a lot for simple village life…but hey, I guess I need to be grateful for the guesthouses which make it possible for us to do this hike, but for goodness sake, wash the damn sheets! Luckily I packed my sleep liner so I had to sleep in the feral bed while Craig took the single bed which smelt slightly cleaner. Oh and the light didn’t work in the room and we laughed a lot because we had the opportunity to choose our room and we picked the worst one.
DAY 2 | Zhabeshi to Adisha | 12km, 6.5 hours
Breakfast was a little lacking with dry bread, boiled eggs where the yolks had turned grey, old kachapuri (traditional Georgian bread filled with cheese) but luckily there was a little bit of melon and some cake which I enjoyed. The hike was pretty tough today, heading uphill to a ski hill and continuing once again on the high trail. The low trail is easier but doesn’t offer the mountain views so I don’t see the point in doing it to be honest.
We continued to enjoy views of Ushba peaks behind us and huge 5000m snow capped peaks on the Russian border ahead of us. The area had lots of lush green pastures and rolling hills but as we started descending wild flowers filled the meadows.
It was extremely steep down to Adisha, another back-to-basics village with plenty of defensive towers. Cows, horses and dogs were roaming the dirt lanes through the village and tonight we were staying at Stone House Marexi. The room was much nicer than last nights and I sniff-tested the bed – the sheets were clean, hooray!! There was no insulation so we could hear everything downstairs where there was the dining area, bathroom and an open plan kitchen.
It was really nice seeing the host make all the food from scratch. The kachapuri came straight off the top of her stove and every dish was hot which is a rarity. It was still all the same Georgian food though with a bowl of soup to start but we did get a surprise bowl of watermelon at the end which was delicious. The German girls we struggled to talk with yesterday were at the same guesthouse as us and I couldn’t be bothered to force conversation with them again so I was delighted to meet a Danish guy at the table. He was such a chatterbox so we had a great chin-wag with him and it was so nice to have a bit of banter too.
DAY 3 | Adishi to Ushguli | 19.5km, 8 hours
This was the longest day of the trip, most people hike to Iprali but there’s limited guesthouses, higher prices and worse reviews. We did actually book into at place in Lalkhori, a couple kilometres beyond Iprali but since then we came up with a new plan to catch a taxi from there to Ushguli (that final day of the hike is said to be boring so we were happy to avoid it and do a hike around Ushguli instead). We had to play it by ear though incase the guesthouse didn’t accept our cancellation request.
So anyway, breakfast was pretty good at this guesthouse, we had loads of homemade chips, salad and a bowl of rice pudding. Pretty simple but that rice pudding was a lovely add-on. I saw the host making coffee and I got very excited but they didn’t offer us any, instead they drank it themselves and proceeded to make tea for us by adding a tiny pinch of tea leaves to the KETTLE (what the heck?! That’s what teapots are for). Coffee is the only drink I like in the morning so I thought it was kinda shitty of them to hand out tea while sipping coffee themselves. In fact we’ve noticed the guesthouses don’t even offer a hot drink when you check in after a long day hiking. I think it’s quite rude and another reason why I’m confused about ‘Georgian hospitality’ because that’s such a simple, welcoming gesture.
For the big hiking day we had an easy hour and half walk towards a river where the view all opened up and we had the snowy peaks ahead of us with a huge glacier spilling down the valley. The river is literally just snow melt from the glacier but it wasn’t a nice clear, blue glacial melt, it was brown and opaque. We’d read that it can be challenging to cross on foot so locals wait there with horses to charge €7 for the 30 second ride.
We walked up and down the river looking for a safe place to cross but it was pretty wild. The rapids were crazy, the current was strong and we just couldn’t see how deep it was. We found a calmer area so we stuck a stick in as a test and it literally sunk about 4ft and could of kept going. It wasn’t worth the risk for us so we reluctantly paid for a horse ride.
We only saw one person cross on foot, a Swiss girl who had two hiking poles that really helped but she didn’t make it look easy. She’d given her bag to her sister to take across on a horse so they could at least pay half price which was very helpful to them as they’d miscalculated their money for the trip and were running low. She got into some trouble half way across and the water was at the top of her thighs! It would be so easy to lose your footing and get washed down the river. I don’t think you’d die as the river wasn’t that wide and you’d be able to get to a bank eventually but it would be so cold that hypothermia could be the bigger issue. Craig’s horse actually stopped halfway across and started lifting it’s foot out the water like it wasn’t confident how deep the next step would be.
The river crossing was a bit of a bottle-neck and we were suddenly seeing quite a few people. Although I’d say only about 20 which is nothing compared to peak season (pre-covid and the war) this trail had 150 tourists everyday. We then had a steep climb up a muddy track towards the pass. On the way we got some fantastic views of the glacier and we could hear it cracking and chunks falling off. Finally we arrived at the pass where we continued a little bit along the ridge to get the best view of the peaks and enjoy our lunch.
On the route down we bumped into a Scandinavian couple we’d met a couple days before that asked if we were heading to Ushguli by taxi today. We still weren’t sure but luckily when we reached the guesthouse we’d booked into they were happy for us to cancel the room so we paid the husband to drive us to Ushguli for 25 lari per person instead…we met an Irish guy the next day who stayed at that guesthouse and said it was awful and the doors didn’t even close so I’m very glad we cancelled our stay.
It was only a 10km drive but the road was all dirt and it was a pretty nasty route. It’s constantly being closed and repaired due to landslides and we passed a few crosses along the way. As soon as we arrived in Ushguli we felt like we’d made the right choice. We checked into ‘Old House’ in the oldest part of Ushguli as there are four little hamlets here. The village was like stepping back in time, all of the buildings were stone with a big tower coming out of them. The lanes were just mud tracks and there were livestock roaming the streets. Our guesthouse was in one of these stone buildings and it’s name ‘Old House’ was no exaggeration, it was 1000 years old.
After a hot shower we somehow managed to force ourselves back out to take some photos of the village as the light was perfect. We crossed a very precarious bridge over an extremely turbulent river for the first photo and then we headed up a hill for a view of the village with the snowy mountain backdrop. The reviews for our guesthouse said the food was really good and different to the other guesthouses so we had high expectations but it was the exact same Georgian fare. The only difference was that the kachapuri was made with a different cheese which was more mozzarella style instead of the usual overly salty cheese which I find quite inedible. There was a beef sort of stew for Craig which he enjoyed but I just had a veg stew and the classic tomato and cucumber salad. By 7pm we were shattered and ready for bed but we tried to stay awake until 9pm, the mooing cows outside helped as they all wandered through the village to our hosts who were on milking duty. Sadly I didn’t end up sleeping well, I was really dehydrated from our hike and had a pounding headache. Plus a group of Dutch guests got drunk and were banging on the door outside at stupid-o’clock.
DAY 4 | Chubedishi Viewpoint | 8.4km, 4 hours
We wanted to do a hike around Ushguli so we picked this one up to a viewpoint on a ridge. It was overgrown at times so my legs came out in a rash which seemed to be a common problem amongst hikers as the poisonous hogweed plant was everywhere. It was another steep slog uphill to a viewpoint along the grassy ridge. We got a great view of the mountain range ahead of us, albeit the peaks were a little cloudy. We finished the hike within four hours so we had a stroll around the other little villages before relaxing at our guesthouse patio until our 3pm taxi back to Mestia. There’s supposed to be a Marshrutka but it’s seems to be another monopoly system where private cars act as shared taxis instead. To be fair their charging the same price as the Marshrutka so it was actually better for us. We met a lot of nice hikers outside our guesthouse, many had just finished up their hike and were ready to get a taxi back. It was strange because they hadn’t walked around Ushguli village nor had they done a day hike…it’s like Ushguli marked the end of the route so they were happy to head back as soon as they got there, which is a shame because the village had a lovely charm.
We drove along the landslide stricken road again and our driver seemed very aware of the danger. The cliffs were made of crumbling slate and he kept looking up for any falling rocks and honking at anyone ahead who he wanted to overtake so he could get out of the danger zone as quick as possible. Within an hour and a half we were back in Mestia and very happy to check into our nice guesthouse and spend the next few days relaxing and planning our next destination.