Despite it being a small country, Georgia is surprisingly-rich in varying climates, food, and even people. Considering that it’s about the size of Tennessee in the U.S., it’s incredible that Georgia has so much diversity to offer. My visit to the Svaneti region showed how there was so much more to the country than the usual khachapuri or Tbilisi stay, as my time in Mestia and Ushguli offered the raw, “true” Georgian roots of it all.
Located in the northwest, the Svaneti region shares a border with Russia, with the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains separating the two countries. No matter where you turn, it’s expected that you’ll see the beautiful Caucasus– I liken them to the Swiss Alps, but just as stunning (if not more)!
It’s also said that the Svan people who live in this region are distinctive from the rest of Georgians– since they live in a rural, isolated location, they’ve learned to be self-sufficient and tough, even having their own Svan language which is entirely incomprehensible from the Georgian language. From what my tour guide told me, it seems that the Svans are like the mountaineering people in the rural parts of the Appalachians or Canada, having a sort of rugged, no-nonsense charm to them.
Mestia is perhaps the most-notable town in Svaneti, as it’s the most-touristy. Since it’s tucked away in such an isolated area in the mountains, getting there easily takes half a day of non-stop driving. From Kutaisi, it was a five to six-hour drive, which was exactly what I did the next day following my tour of the city. Along with three other passengers (a Lithuanian girl, and a German couple), I sat back in the car and let time pass by on our long ride to the Svan town.
Our driver, who happened to be my guide for Kutaisi the day before, drove pretty much non-stop, with the exception of a couple of breaks to see the Enguri water dam, which powers electricity using water to much of the country, and a waterfall alongside the road (which I forgot the name of). We’d left Kutaisi around 8:00 and we arrived into Mestia towards 13:30, so it was definitely a long drive, but a pleasant one as we chatted with and got to know each other.
The first stop once we reached Mestia was its cable car. We took it up to the Hatsvali ski resort, about 2300 meters in altitude. Since we literally were riding up to the mountain, we were bound to see and touch snow…in late May! Temperatures were a lot more comfortable at the top, too, compared to the sweltering heat at the base. The cable car ride up was tranquil, as we dangled our legs and watched the town of Mestia get smaller and smaller and the mountains larger and larger. At the top, we saw the distinctive, two-pronged Ushba mountain and Tetnuldi, the 10th-highest peak in the Caucasus region.
We took the cable car back down to Mestia, where we visited the town itself. What makes the place distinctive (as well as other towns in Svaneti) was the dozens of ancient towers planted on the sloped, green hills, appearing somewhat otherworldly. They’re Svan towers, built between the 9th and 12th centuries, as means of protection not just from outside enemies, but also their own neighbors. We climbed one of them to the top, from which we got beautiful views of the Caucasus and Mestia itself.
After visiting a historic noble family’s estate, we got a late lunch in town. Our guide recommended that we try kubdari, a regional specialty– essentially, it’s a meat pastry filled with spices that give heat to the dish. I like spicy food, so I really enjoyed it: along with the eggplants-walnut paste dish I had in Kutaisi, the kubdari is one of my favorite Georgian dishes I’ve had.
Fun fact: kubdari is traditionally-made with cannabis filling, as the ingredient has been historically-legal in Svaneti– the dish isn’t found so commonly today, but I wouldn’t dare try it otherwise!
Our tour ended after lunch, and I said goodbye to the guide and the other passengers. I headed to my accommodation– a guesthouse– where I would be spending the night. It was my first time staying in a guesthouse by myself, and it turned out to be my favorite stay in Georgia. Not only did I have a whole room (bed, bathroom) to myself, but also I had an amazing Georgian breakfast included, i.e. so much food. From cold cuts and cheeses to warm khachapuri and soup, I was treated like a queen– I couldn’t finish it all!
I would be spending the following day exploring more of the Svaneti region, this time taking an off-road tour to Ushguli, a cluster of villages that’s considered the highest settlement in Europe at 2100 meters. “Bumpy” would be an understatement when it comes to describing the two-hour drive over: in true, Georgian fashion, our driver didn’t care if there was mud, cars, or even potholes ditch-deep on the ride– he just plowed through them without a care. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat, and I was praying that we wouldn’t drive off the rocky cliff!
We reached Chazhashi, one of the four villages of Ushguli, around 11:30. Due to the roads we just drove on being cleared for the day, we had six hours to explore the small village before we could go back. While one could say we were “stranded” there, another would say it was a great opportunity to check out the village and then a short hike in the countryside.
If I’d thought that Mestia was lovely with its Svan towers and mountains, Chazhashi was even more spectacular– we were even closer to the mountains, and I could see dozens of sheep and horses grazing alongside the green hills. There were even more Svan towers, and I spent about two hours strolling the village along its dirt, muddy paths. I saw domesticated horses, pigs, dogs, chickens, etc. Definitely is a rural community, and it’s incredible how the locals here have survived for centuries!
Rural as it is, Ushguli was absolutely beautiful. Its stone towers against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains is the stuff of a photographer’s dream, one you would want a postcard of. To be in the middle of it all is to feel small and insignificant as an individual, human being, to know that, no matter how much we’ve tried to control this earth, it still remains wild and free.
After seeing the village and climbing a couple of nearby hills for panoramic views, I concluded my time in Chazhashi with a lunch break at the “main” café in town. It was for tourists, as I found the dish prices to be inflated. Even more so, I was informed that many of the dishes weren’t available that day, because of a shortage of ingredients– the fact that they had to import ingredients from a long way in their isolation made sense, although it was a bummer that many dishes weren’t readily available to try out. I ended up ordering mushroom soup and cheese-stuffed mushrooms (a lot of mushrooms!), which were just-okay. I had lunch with a couple from Kazakhstan, who were part of my tour group, and it was pleasant.
I puttered around the village a little more afterwards until it was time for us to return to Mestia. Apparently, we were delayed by 30 minutes, since the road to get back still wasn’t all cleared up. It was a minor setback, but we eventually made it back to Mestia an hour than expected, and from there, I got another *long* ride with a different driver to my next destination in Georgia.
If anything, I would say that the Svaneti region was one of my favorites in the country. Gorgeous at every turn, I also appreciated the quieter, more laid-back pace of life compared with the bustle of big cities. People were friendly, food was delicious, and it was what made me start to fall in love with Georgia– I was excited to see what was to come in this small, but stunning country.
Coming up: Batumi, Georgia!