My first sight of the Greater Caucasus appeared like a crepuscular dream. I was asleep, prostrate on the rear seat of a minivan, when a bump in the mountain road jolted me into consciousness. Through the window, the dawn was all but obscured by a bastion of rock so endless I had to blink to check I wasn’t hallucinating. I couldn’t get back to sleep after that. For the next few days, I knew, views like this would fill the sky.
I had come to Georgia dreaming of days in the mountains. The small country of four million people, sandwiched between Turkey and Russia, is a land so synonymous with high-country that the wider geographical region is named for them. The Caucasus, denoting both a mountain range and the constellation of ex-Soviet territories that spans it, is a word which still seems shrouded in enigma.
I confess I was hoping for enigmatic, but the flattening world was not without benefits. In 2016, the budget carrier WizzAir introduced direct flights from London to Kutaisi, Georgia’s third city, four hours’ drive from its most spectacular mountain-country. Arriving in the early hours, friend Toby and I had hailed a taxi and barrelled northwards. By lunchtime, twelve hours after touching down in Kutaisi, we were on a muddy lane, slaloming roaming pigs, walking beneath the fortified towers and rough-hewn balconies of a different world.
Our portal to this strange old place was the Svaneti Trail, a four-day village-to-village trek, which undulates for 32 miles through the snow-clad peaks that mark Georgia’s border with Russia. Starting in Mestia, Georgia’s western trekking hub, and ending in the remote outpost of Ushuguli, it is known not just for its scenery — which is jaw-dropping — but for the singular culture that has evolved in its shadows.
After a gentle climb out of Mestia, the first morning’s walk had brought us into the Svan Valley. A broad parabola of sylvan glades, its floor was dotted every few miles with villages, medieval throwbacks of stonewalled homesteads, each scattered with koshki, slender defensive towers built as refuges by families to shelter from enemy raids.
For all the surrounding grandeur, it still felt like a marginal region, not altogether accustomed to visitors. At one point, temporary lost on a village’s outskirts, we asked one gentleman for directions only for him to spin around and fall face-first into the dust. He stood up, cheeks smeared with dirt, and zigzagged off, befuddled and catastrophically drunk, leaving our question hanging in the air.
Elsewhere, people were more sober, yet endlessly accommodating. Legs of the Svaneti Trail run between villages, meaning that you can invariably roll up, as we did in Zhabeishi after a nine mile hike on day one, to be greeted by someone like Maya, whose home now doubles as a rudimentary guesthouse.
Accommodation is astonishingly cheap — around $20 for a room, dinner and breakfast — and while the rooms may be Spartan the food is anything but. That evening in Zhabeishi, we settled into the family kitchen to a banquet of home-made bread, grilled cheese and pickled vegetables, washed down with the customary half-bottle of cha-cha, a local moonshine.
At daybreak, we set off early, climbing around 2,000 feet out of the Svan Valley. We hit the ridgeline in brilliant sun, emerging from the forest onto a gravel river stalked by chair-lift stanchions — monuments to the nascent ‘Tetnuldi’ ski-resort that operates here in winter — then forked off into a gorge tumescent with wild flowers.
If the Svan Valley had marked a transition-point between new world and old, then Adishi, the village we reached a couple of hours later, was complete immersion. A small agglomeration of homesteads cupped by a tawny glen, it presented itself as a labyrinth of two-storey, stone-walled buildings, with living quarters perched above stabling for livestock, much of which — cows, goats, sheep — was taking a post-prandial among the mud alleys when we arrived.
Much of the village was in a state of dilapidation. Earthquakes are common in these parts, and several of the houses were half-collapsed; an eight-foot conifer grew from the roof of one of the koshki towers. We ambled around, gawping at the evocativeness of it all, until a young guesthouse owner fished us off the lane with the promise of bed and beer.
The next morning, a slight cha-cha hangover was compounded by an examination of our sheet-map for the day, which was annotated in the indecipherable curlicues of the Georgian alphabet. The irascible man at Mestia’s tourist information office had proffered it with the perfunctory explanation that “map is map”, and anyway he’d run out of the English translation so we’d have to make do.
Hewing necessarily close to the red-way-markers on tree and boulder, we walked on as the landscape grew big and wild. A half-hour’s tramp from Adishi brought us into an amphitheatre of permanent snow, radiating around the unspooled tongue of the Adishi Glacier, which so distracted our gaze that it took us a while to realize when the path abruptly vanished into a stream. We forded its braided rivulets in rolled-up trousers, the water so cold it cut to the bone. On the opposite slope, the birches were yellowing, as if the same glacial chill had precipitated a premature Fall.
So it continued for the next two days, up bosky slopes, down protean gorges: first to Iprali, bound by cliffs of slate, which formed chaotic libraries at the trailside, then along a frothing river towards our walk’s terminus, spurred on by the knowledge that the Svaneti Trail saved the greatest sight for last.
On our final morning, I leaned out of my bunk to open the curtains of our guesthouse room to see that the previous day’s cloud had lifted. The trail’s final stop, Ushuguli, was appointed a World Heritage Site in 1996 for its proliferation of koshki and treasure-house churches, though it is no less celebrated for its glorious situation. Due east, the pretty Lamaria chapel set primly on a hill, and behind that, at the head of a narrowing valley, the hulk of Mount Shkhara, at 17,037 feet Georgia’s highest peak, appeared as a monstrous wall, wreathed in cloud.
Faced by such majesty, it was all too easy to dwell on the encroachment of modernity. On the village outskirts, a few Alpine-style hotels marked a break with traditional architecture. In late morning, a group of Japanese tourists sent two drones skyward, their inescapable whirr rudely breaking the time-warp we’d been wrapped in for four days.
No matter, I thought, as Toby muttered about how those machines should really be banned in places this beautiful. The last minibus to Mestia didn’t leave for hours. We turned for the mountains, and started walking.