View of Svaneti from our flight in
This was going to be the highlight of the trip. I'd been telling people I was going to the "Caucasus mountains nations of Georgia and Armenia." Well, now I was finally heading to the Caucasus mountains themselves. The trip there depended on a 17-seater flight that had a reputation for canceling. You can get there by a combination of overnight train and marshrutka mini-bus, but that takes almost two days of travel. To save time, the idea was to fly up and do the train back.
We took a cab from Telavi to the airport rather than the marshrutka. It is little over an hour, and the price was reasonable ($40 for the two of us). A short time after we arrived, they made an announcement that our flight was delayed three hours. Fearing the worst, I began to make backup plans to get there by ground if it canceled. No need to worry, though, as the cloud cover in Mestia lifted sooner than they guessed. They were checking us in just two hours after they'd announced the delay. Once on board the tiny, twin-engine turboprop (De Haviland 6, for my airplane buff friends), we chatted with the captain. He was Canadian, like the plane, and had been hired by the Georgian government to fly the route. He was very interesting, and had spent much of his life flying polar routes for his company, Ken Borek Air (which is what most of their business was). The flight up was spectacular, as we cruised at only 10,000 feet. We watched the terrain steadily climb upwards until we all began gawking at the jagged, snow-capped peaks the plane was banking around. It was a picturesque way to begin a three scenic days in Svaneti - the name for this region of Georgia.
Mestia's Svan towers - 12th century defensive fortifications
Neither of us were very thrilled with our guesthouse. Once again, a highly recommended Lonely Planet accommodation was lacking. The room was stale and musty smelling. There were (of course) too many guests for the number of restroom/showers. And the water had a tendency to simply go out. No water to flush the toilet, wash your hands or take a shower. I understand that this is a small town in the Upper Caucasus, and that a certain amount of "roughing it" might be required. So, we decided to stick it out. After all, the host Roza was friendly, helpful and spoke English (apparently the only three qualities needed to secure a LP "highly recommended" rating!
With our delay, we had lost a good chunk of sightseeing time. We adjusted our schedule, deciding to just explore the town today, do our day trip to the UNESCO world heritage village of Ushguli tomorrow, and our hike on our final day. The tourist information office was moderately helpful, but had no useful maps of either Mestia or hiking trails. Mestia is incredibly scenic, and it was great just to wander around the small town. Unfortunately, like Telavi, it is essentially be reconstructed right now. The sound of electric saws, hammering and huge construction vehicles is a constant buzz and occasional roar. I've decided that Georgia is going to be an awesome place to visit in two years! Although we weren't crazy about our room, one advantage of this type of accommodation is you meet and befriend other travelers from all over the world.
Ushguli, UNESCO World Heritage site
One key meeting was with a Ukrainian couple who agreed to join us on our one-day excursion to Ushguli. The price for the car and driver was "per car," so this cut our cost in half. The drive was along a rutted, muddy "jeep road," and dove deep into the mountains, hugging cliff faces, fording streams and jostling us about in the small jeep like a blender on four wheels. I say "small" because they sent a 4-seater for our trip with four tourists and a driver. Those of us in the back seat were crammed in...I think our rear end width exceeded the seat width!
All of us were awestruck when we arrived in Ushguli. The village has more than 20 Svan towers, and looks straight out of the Middle Ages. The stone towers are three stories tall, and were built by extended families as safe points during enemy raids. They loom up all throughout the town of single story, stone cottages. They are four sided and taper to the top, where they widen out into a fighting platform with a wooden roof. There are no doors on the ground level. Ladders would be removed once all the family and valuables were safely inside. Arrow slits allow them to cover neighbor towers, as well as fight off attackers. As we drove slowly into town, I knew the village would be a sight I would always remember.
Ushguli's setting matches its striking look. The village is nestled amid high hills with an outstanding backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It is reputed to be the highest inhabited village in Europe. A rushing mountain stream races through the village, bordered by colorful Alpine meadows. We spent the first part of our 3 1/2 hour visit finding scenic vantage points to photograph the village. Cows, pigs, chickens and dogs wandered by as we went on to poke our way through Ushguli. We stopped in a couple of family-run museums, including one housed in a Svan tower. We worked our way through Ushguli's lower, middle and upper clusters of buildings. Once beyond the village, we climbed a hill with a majestic view of the snow-capped mountains. The mountains peaked through a wide gap between two, grassy slopes. Far away, we could see cattle grazing on the slopes. Nearer, horses cropped the grass or nuzzled one another. A steady breeze blew across the grassland as we ate a impromptu lunch of Cliff Bar and a bottle of water.
Our time in Ushguli went quickly, and soon were were bouncing our way back to Mestia. For our third day, we had decided to escape the stuffy guesthouse and splurge on the town's nicest hotel. Built on a slope above the main part of Mestia, it did not disappoint. We had a clean, Western style bathroom, balcony, and cozy comfort. Of course, at $100 a night, it should be awesome. We had paid only $12 each for Roza's Guesthouse.
An easier portion of our Mestia hike
Our plan for the day, once we'd checked in and spread our stuff out in the closet and drawers (our room at Roza's had a closet, but it was full of the family's winter clothes!), was to do some hiking. The destination was a hilltop far above town, marked by an iron cross barely visible from below. The tourist information office and guidebook said it was a four-hour hike, round trip. I have a bad tendency to lose trails, but the directions in the guidebook and Jenny's ability to spot the "blazes" - yellow and white marks on stones and trees kept us on track. It was a very hot, cloudless day. Even in shorts, I was quickly soaked in sweat. The trail was steep - incredibly steep, in some places. Eventually, though, it linked up with a jeep track. From there on, the walking was not only easier but much more scenic.
As we hiked, we'd been catching glimpses of the town spread out beneath us through the trees, as well as majestic mountains. The trees thinned out and we were walking through Swiss-style alpine meadows. More mountains began to appear as we steadily ascended. Almost three hours after we began, we finally trudged the last few yards to the cross. We were wrapped in a gorgeous, 360 degree panorama. On all sides, rocky mountains, glaciers, forest-clad mountains, and meadows bright with flowers encircled us. The view was stunning, and everything I was hoping to see in the Caucasus. Even the persistent flies that had buzzed us for the last hour seemed to disappear. We were left with beauty all around, and just as our legs basked in the rest from climbing, our souls drank in the sight.
Thinking that nothing would surpass nature's beauty, we were given another gift that evening of man's ability to impress. As we dined on the hotel's terrace, we were able to see the entire spectacle of Mestia's more than 30 Svan towers displayed below us like a necklace of yellow stone. The view from the hotel was superb. It only became better as dusk slowly descended on town. Floodlights blazed out to strike a peach-colored glow from the thousand year old stone sides of the towers. Once again, I knew I was seeing a sight I would always remember. Nighttime gave a new dimension to the beauty of the Svaneti landscape. Somehow, modern electric lights, when combined with medieval stone work and God's age-old landscape created a symphony that struck chords in all who saw it. I'd come to Svaneti hoping it would be the highlight of the trip, and it did not disappoint.