Georgia

img_4965What is it that makes a snow-capped mountain jutting up into a clear blue sky from a sea of rolling green hills empirically beautiful? Or the sound of soft waves as the tide comes into shore intrinsically peaceful? A landfill covered with rotting garbage inherently unattractive and an abandoned (or active, if you ask me) strip mall decidedly depressing? After all, no one looks at a river polluted with discarded plastic and says, Wow, that’s really beautiful. Or do they? Who determines what is naturally beautiful and what is not? 

This was my stream of consciousness as I ran through the undeniable beauty of the Becho Valley in Upper Svaneti, Georgia in September 2016. Flanked by the majesty of Mount Ushba on one side and a gushing river of glacial water on the other, I couldn’t imagine anyone believing the scenery around me to be anything other than absolutely stunning. Indeed, I myself had ever seen anything so dazzling only a couple of times in my life.

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Running through the most beautiful backdrop I’ve ever had in my life. It almost doesn’t seem real.

In his article in the September 2016 issue of Trail Runner magazine, ultra runner/climber Anton Krupicka sums up his perspective on spending time on trails and peaks: Go outside, move in the mountains, come back changed for the better. This sentiment perfectly describes how I feel after several days of hiking and running with M. in Svaneti. It was an unforgettable adventure, filled with exploration, challenge, self-discovery, and reflection… one that has left me profoundly and forever changed.

It was M.’s dream to visit Georgia, and admittedly, when he suggested it as our summer vacation destination, I felt somewhat indifferent about it. I didn’t know much about Georgia, or the Caucasus region in general for that matter, so I didn’t share the same burning desire to go there. However, all it took was showing me a few photos of the Svaneti region in the northwest part of the country, near the Russian and Abkhazian borders, and I was sold.

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Some propaganda for you to begin planning your own trip to Svaneti.

M. did all of the research and made all of the arrangements. We would travel from Riga to Tbilisi, where we would first spend a couple of days exploring Georgia’s flourishing, old-meets-new capital city with our good friend, A., who lives there. Then we would move on to the remote High Caucasus Mountains of Svaneti to hike and recenter after what has been a hectic year for both of us.

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Georgia’s sprawling capital, Tbilisi, taken from Mtatsminda Park at the top of the funicular railway. Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century B.C.

There is one direct flight leaving several times a week from Riga to Tbilisi and vice-versa. The only catch is that its timing is best suited for the nocturnal. We arrived in Tbilisi at 3:25 am, and boarded our return flight 10 days later at 3:40 am. Still, a direct flight of three hours seemed like a better option than an six-hour journey with a layover in Kyiv or Istanbul.

We are fortunate to have such a good friend in A., as he kindly picked us up from the airport at that ungodly hour on a Saturday and took us to his home – with air conditioning, to provide some relief from the 34-degree (93 degrees Fahrenheit) heat – for some much-needed rest. Once we had all recovered from our all-nighter, A. led us around for the next day and a half to show us a bit of Tbilisi. The air was hot and dry and and temperature high. We didn’t have nearly enough time to see all that the city has to offer, but we managed to catch a glimpse of a few notable parts.

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Freedom Monument, also known as St. George’s Statue, in Tbilisi’s central square. The monument was unveiled in 2006.

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Old meets new: This ground-floor Dunkin’ Donuts is a popular destination between Tbilisi’s central square and Old Town.

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Sion Church, Old Tbilisi.

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One of Old Tbilisi’s cozy streets with cafes and restaurants on either side.

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Old Tbilisi is built into the hills on both sides of the Mtkvari River.

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Mtkvari River, Tbilisi.

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Hilltop churches like this one on the Mtkvari River dot the landscape throughout Georgia.

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Tbilisi’s royal baths offer therapeutic, sulfuric water for patrons.

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This city waterfall near the Royal Baths was a popular spot for getting a bit of relief from the heat.

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No, these aren’t sausages! Churchkhela is a traditional Georgian candy, consisting of nuts (usually walnuts or hazelnuts) dipped in a thickened grape juice and set to solidify in the shape of a candle.
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Georgia produces many excellent wines, appealing to locals and tourists alike.

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Sampling some Georgian wines with our friend, A.

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Standing above Tbilisi at Mtatsminda Park.

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A sampling of traditional Georgian food in Tbilisi.

On Monday morning, we began our journey toward the mountains. M. had spent several weeks leading up to our trip researching the best way to travel from Tbilisi to Mestia, a small town of about 2,600 people but the largest and only real travel hub in the Svaneti region. Our options were rather limited, as the area is still quite undeveloped and the roads leave something to be desired (though they are much improved from what they were even just ten years ago). We could rent a car and and brave the lawlessness that pervades the entire concept of driving in Georgia, where lane markers and stoplights are suggestions; we could take a marshrutka, a minibus designed to hold about 20 passengers but which in reality would contain no fewer than 30; we could take an overnight train to the town of Zugdidi and then complete the 2.5-hour journey by taxi or marshrutka to Mestia; or, we could take our chances with the weather and travel by plane from Natakhtari, a suburb of Tbilisi, to Mestia. Wanting to maximize our time in the mountains, we opted for the flight.

Operated by a small company called Vanilla Sky, our flight left Natakhtari promptly at 10:00 am under a cloudless sky and seamlessly brought us to Mestia in about 50 minutes. Purchasing our tickets had been an interesting experience, as we could reserve our seats by email only, and no more than 30 days in advance of the flight. Payment by bank transfer was the only acceptable method, and our “tickets” were in the form of an email confirmation, with a note to stand in front the McDonald’s in the center of Tbilisi at 7:45, where a shuttle would pick us up and take us to the tiny airport in Natakhtari.

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M. gets ready to board our flight for Mestia.

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This tiny plane, operated by two very kind pilots, carried 12 passengers across Georgia.

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The hills became mountains as we approached Mestia.

We were greeted in Mestia by a driver whom we had hired to take us to the Grand Hotel Usbha, our home for the next several days, in Svaneti’s Becho Valley, about 45 minutes northwest of Mestia.

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Mestia’s Queen Tamar Airport is still under construction.

Situated at the foot of Mount Ushba, one of the most notable peaks (4,710 m / 15,450 feet) in the High Caucasus range, the Grand Hotel Ushba is a small, quaint guesthouse with simple, comfortable rooms, a cozy restaurant, outstanding hospitality, and several dozen hiking trails just outside its doors. It is co-owned and operated by two outdoors enthusiasts, one Norwegian and the other Svan. During our stay, Richard, the Norwegian co-owner, was on-site and did everything from tending to the rooms, preparing and serving meals, and giving hiking recommendations and advice for all of the guests.

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True to its slogan, The Grand Hotel Ushba is “probably the best hotel location on Earth!”

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Our room was simple, rustic, and clean.

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I don’t believe I’ve ever had a view like this from a bedroom window.

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Stone walls, white tablecloths, and candles created a cozy ambience in the hotel restaurant.

Shortly after arriving, we set out on our first hike, a nine-mile round-trip trek to Becho Waterfall. It was the first of six days of challenging hiking and running (and sometimes crawling) through striking natural beauty. Svaneti is a hiker’s and trail runner’s paradise, with unrelenting climbs that tested our physical fitness and steep descents that made us (well, me) confront some serious fears of heights. We explored the trails in every direction from the guest house, talking, snapping photos, chatting with the numerous free-roaming cows and horses we encountered, having picnics, and sometimes just walking together in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. Even on the more popular trails, we rarely saw other hikers; most of the time, it seemed that we were out there alone.

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M. hikes through the Becho Valley, 1,650 m (5,200 feet) above sea level.

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This tiny church sits in the valley.

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The Becho Waterfall flows down from Ushba Glacier.

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This glacial water provided some refreshment and relief after a tough hike that involved a brush with some horrible stinging plants.

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The river flowing from Becho Waterfall.

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The abandoned village of Guli, which we passed on our second hike toward Mestia.

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Climbing higher toward Guli Pass offered stunning views of Mount Ushba.

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Everywhere we went, we met sweet, gentle cows nibbling on grass and seemingly enjoying the same views as we were.

This short video gives a sense of our hike toward Guli Pass.

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Taking a break from the steep hills of the Guli Pass trail.

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Beautiful, beautiful.

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Climbs like this made up large portions of our hikes. Going up was hard; coming down was frightening.

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Taking a rest during our hike toward Ushba Glacier.

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M. caught these gorgeous pink wildflowers against the backdrop of the Becho Valley below us.

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M. climbs up the trail to investigate how we might cross this waterfall/river. In the end, we decided not to and turned around.

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The photo doesn’t quite show it, but behind M. is a steep cliff. We met this darling little calf on our way down, wondering how he managed to get all the way up here.

Our outdoor adventures were balanced with naps and reading and were bookended with fantastic meals prepared by Richard and his staff: hearty breakfasts to fuel us through many hours of hiking, and warm, elegant dinners with Georgian wine served by candlelight in the evenings. If we so desired, Richard also made take-along lunches for us to eat during our hikes. Although it was virtually impossible to eat 100% vegan during our stay, as most dishes were prepared with dairy products or eggs, eating vegetarian was very easy, thanks in large part to Richard’s willingness to accommodate us. Eighty percent of the food and drink served at the Grand Hotel Ushba is sourced locally and organically from Svaneti, and we could rest assured that the dairy products we consumed came from free-roaming, grass-fed cows and the eggs from local, free range hens. As one Svan hotel guest put it during dinner one night, Svaneti cows have more rights than Svaneti women! A joke, of course, but a testament to the Svan people’s commitment to animal welfare.

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This bull was so curious. He just stared at us while M. took his photo.

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Cows roam all around in Svaneti.

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Georgian tomatoes ≥ Bulgarian tomatoes > all other tomatoes.

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Our final breakfast in Svaneti: homemade bread, Svan cheese, fresh yoghurt, Svan pancakes, homemade jam, fresh tomatoes, and fried potatoes.

Besides the delicious food and warm hospitality, my favorite thing about staying at the Grand Hotel Ushba was the sense of community that naturally arose among the guests. We met other travelers from Sweden, Russia, Ukraine, the U.K., Austria, Switzerland, and Poland, and each evening after our separate explorations in the wilderness, we came together at dinner time and shared our experiences from the day, offering each other congratulatory words about our hiking achievements, and comparing notes about how best to tackle a particular trail or route.

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In addition to meeting our fellow guests, we met several other animals who liked to hang around the guest house. This sweet little kitten kept appearing and thoroughly enjoyed being cuddled by everyone.

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Rumbata, a Caucasian shepherd, looks a bit intimidating but he was a gentle giant.

One of the guests hired four Svan choral groups to sing for us all on two evenings at dinner time. This was a real treat, and our only true exposure to Svan culture during our stay.

This professional men’s choir has won many awards throughout the country:

This women’s choir was excellent and wonderful to listen to:

We spent our final afternoon in Svaneti running the annual BechUp 8km race, from the bottom of the Becho Valley to the top, and organized by Richard and his staff. The race was small, with only seven participants, and the course tough – uphill, with an elevation gain of 380 m (1,250 feet). With my legs burning from five days of grueling hikes, I squeaked in to the finish just under the hour mark, in 58:24, a women’s course record.

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M. approaches the finish line of the BechUp 8km Run, taking third place for the men.

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There were three women in the race, and we all made it onto the podium.

As the clouds rolled in the next morning, seemingly from the ground up in some places, we knew there was a high likelihood that our return flight from Mestia to Tbilisi would be canceled. Owing to Svaneti’s relatively new tourism industry, transportation to and from the area is still very much in development. Vanilla Sky’s flights depend on absolute visibility rather than on technologically advanced navigation systems, which forced us to seek an alternate method of travel back to Tbilisi. With Richard’s help, we hired a private driver for the 280-mile journey from the Becho Valley to Tbilisi.

That drive was the stuff of adventure novels, deserving of a blog post all its own, with a cliched subtitle along the lines of I rode through Georgia in a car and lived to tell about it. It was a ten-hour trip, the first three of which took us down winding mountain roads with record speed at the tightest of hairpin turns to the town of Zugdidi. For me, it was an exercise in mind over matter and not allowing my nausea to get the best of me. Our driver, a weathered, tattooed man with greying hair, an unbuttoned shirt, and a chronic cough, was kind enough, stopping regularly for the restroom and asking us if we minded if he smoked. At one point he even stopped to take out a pillow for me so that I could rest my head. We had a late lunch in Zugdidi, at which point I felt much better, and then we continued on to Tbilisi, zooming and weaving through traffic and cows, the speedometer reaching 160km per hour (100 miles per hour) more than once on the two-lane highway. I took in the countryside as we drove, grateful for heavier traffic which forced us to slow down as we approached the capital. We arrived in Tbilisi after dark, and felt relieved and weary by the time we made it back to A.’s apartment for a few hours’ rest before heading to the airport at 2:30 am for our flight back home to Riga.

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I never imagined that one day I’d be within driving distance of Iran.

Our time in Svaneti was a chance for M. and me to connect – with nature, with other travelers, and with each other. I’d never been to such a place before, so naturally beautiful, peaceful, and untouched, and it’s hard to say whether I’ll have that opportunity again. What I do know is that our time in Svaneti has inspired me… to run more, to spend more time on trails and in the mountains, to experience more, and to appreciate more. I went outside and moved in the mountains. And then I came back, changed for the better.

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One of my favorite photos from the trip, and possibly my favorite running photo ever. Credit goes to M. as the photographer and to Svaneti for being simply gorgeous.

 

Thank you for reading!