Northwestern Georgia is a region of the country of Georgia.
- 1 Mestia – The "capital" of Svaneti and a UNESCO World Heritage site
- 2 Zugdidi – The capital of Samegrelo, and mostly gateway to Mestia and Abkhazia.
- 3 Anaklia and Ganmukhuri – Black Sea villages nearby Zugdidi (34 km). During the last few years these villages have become fancy, touristic resorts. Some high class hotels, pubs and casino were built. It's a good place to enjoy the Black Sea.
- 4 Jvari – A small town with a couple of excellent attractions nearby, like the Enguri Dam, the Omune Observation Tower, the Intsira Waterfall, and the Lia fortress ruins.
- 5 Martvili – Popular for canyoning and whitewater rafting.
- 6 Mazeri – A stunningly beautiful mountain village. The starting point for Svaneti Mount Ushba trekking.
- 7 Poti – A fairly uninteresting port city, albeit one with an interesting ancient history. Headquarters of the Georgian Navy. Also serves as an entrance point to Kolheti National Park.
- 8 Skuri – A resort in the mountains with mineral spring water and caves, and potentially a good starting point for the Shaking Rock hike.
- 9 Tsalenjikha – Famous for its cathedral on the eastern hill side.
- 10 Tsaishi – Traditional village life. Has hot mineral springs, the Museum of Iona Meunargia, a Georgian poet and well known public person, a cathedral, picnic on the mountain Urta with amazing views of the Great Caucasus chain, and Djegeta mountain with old church and impressive nature. The hot springs are not maintained by anyone, and only holes in the grassland are available for a dip—you better head to Nokalakevi, whose nearby springs are a real gem.
- 11 Ushguli – Perhaps the most picturesque Svan village, at the bottom of Georgia's highest mountain, Ushba (Shkhara).
Northwestern Georgia coincides with the administrative regions Samegrelo. and Svaneti. of Georgia. Svaneti is divided into two parts, Upper Svaneti and Lower Svaneti, separated by the tall Svaneti Mountain Range.
Northwestern Georgia is a very diverse region, which, due to its many languages, cultures, and even governments, can feel like several different countries. The Svans of Svaneti and the Mingrelians of Samegrelo are Christian, Georgian sub-ethnic groups who have cultures and languages distinct from, but closely related to Georgian. The Abkhaz, however, are a completely unrelated South Caucasian people, who for much of their history were predominantly Muslim, until the Russian Empire's "Muhajarism" practice in the 19th century of mass deportation of Muslim Caucasian peoples, which cleansed the region of nearly all non-Orthodox Abkhaz.
The culture of Svaneti is intriguing, offering some of Georgia's most solemn and mysterious dances, and the most complex polyphonic singing in the Caucasus—a tradition dating back over two millennia. There are absolutely no regular performances of any kind, and there are no performance venues besides the open air under the Greater Caucasus, or perhaps in someone's modest home. You are more likely to experience Svan performances in Tbilisi, but a really great guide may set something up with the help of local friends.
Since Georgian independence in 1991, Northwestern Georgia has been a hotbed of complicated political violence and conflict. The first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was an ethnic Mingrelian with ties to Samegrelo. His presidency was intensely controversial within and without Georgia and sparked a civil war, which quickly resulted in a murky coup d'etat in late 1991. Conflict between pro-Gamsakhurdia and anti-Gamsakhurdia forces continued as a new separatist conflict exploded in Abkhazia in 1992. The Abkhaz military, fighting alongside paramilitaries from the North Caucasus (and possibly with help from the Russian government) defeated the Georgian military in September 1993, allowing the Abkhaz government to establish de facto independence.
In an even more strange and convoluted twist, Gamsakhurdia then returned to Georgia from Chechnya in late 1993, set up a government-in-exile in Zugdidi, and began a full scale civil war with the central government, relying on the support of Samegrelo and Abkhazia. Gamsakhurdia's war was very successful and his forces routed the Georgian military and threatened the capital. But the resulting instability threatened Russian interests and the Russian government sent its military to the aid of the central government, resulting in a quick defeat for Gamsakhurdia's forces, the firm establishment of Georgia's Shevardnadze government, and the mysterious death of Gamsakhurdia himself. But Northwestern Georgia never really accepted the Shevardnadze victory, leaving the Samegrelo region in particular a turbulent, volatile center of unrest. The central government struggled to control the Samegrelo region throughout the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze (1992–2003). Moreover, the wide-scale ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia's ethnic Georgians led to continued low-intensity warfare between Mingrelian paramilitaries and the Abkhaz military. Stability in the region is further undermined by an influx of refugees from the Abkhazian war zone are mostly Megrelians.
The most powerful force shaping the region today is the protracted separatist conflict between Abkhazia and the Georgian central government. The current situation is more or less a stalemate. Georgia's president has vowed to reintegrate Abkhazia into Georgia, but only by peaceful means. The Abkhaz government demands nothing less than full de jure independence from Georgia. And the ever important Russian government, which still has peace-keeping troops in the region, gives tacit support to its Abkhaz client government while trying to avoid renewed regional conflict.
The climate of Northwestern Georgia ranges from subtropical (Samegrelo) to high alpine (Sevan), and is one of Georgia's greenest, lushest, and wettest regions.
Samegrelo's climate is subtropical with frequent rains. The coastal areas have many marshlands despite the Soviet Georgian authorities' efforts to dry them up. These marshlands contain many rare birds and animals not found in other parts of the country. For this reason, substantial part of the territories is protected by the Georgian law as part of the Colchetian Nature Reserve.
Much of the older generation speak Russian as a second or a third language and the younger generation is increasingly speaking English due to hostility towards Russia, and also because English is taught in schools since independence and has replaced Russian as a second language in schools nation-wide.
When in need for help, look for younger people, as they are more likely to know some English. Speaking Russian is recommended in areas where non-Georgian minorities live. Basic tourism vocabulary is widely understood in Mestia, the regional capital.
Marshrutkas head to Zugdidi and on to Abkhazia from the bus stations in Batumi and Kutaisi, and Tbilisi. Poti is the easiest destination to get to, and is widely served by public transport. Marshrutkas also make the long, steep climb from Kutaisi and Tbilisi to the Svan capital, Mestia.
Night trains (8 hr) between Zugdidi and Tbilisi are co-ordinated with early morning (06:00-08:00) marshrutka departures (15 lari) from Zugdidi to Mestia, which take a bit over 3-4 hr. Booking in advance for the train recommended.
There are basic and inconvenient marshrutka services between towns, but it's generally easier to hire taxis. Most of the drivers will not speak English, but if you state your destination they will usually point you in the right direction.
In Svaneti, hiking from town to town is possible, and considerably more exciting, There is a flagged path from Mestia to Ushguli passing through several villages, the tourist information in Mestia can give additional information as well as some very detailed hiking maps.
There are reasonably good roads in the region with a new highway built to connect with Mestia. If you have your own transport it will be easy to get around.
- Svaneti – In addition to the breathtaking ancient villages of Svaneti filled with imposing stone watchtowers, there are some spectacular mountain vistas of Europe's highest mountains. Look especially for Mount Ushba and Mount Shkhara.
- 1 Tower of Love (between Mestia and Ushguli). A Svan Tower with a special purpose.
- 2 Enguri Canyon near Totani. The canyon before and after Totani village is awsome and worth a stop along the road, when the water from the damm is out.
- 3 Tsalenjikha Cathedral.
- 4 Nokalakevi Archaeopoliss (Tsikhegodgi fortress).
- 5 Martvili Canyon (Gachedili). A place of waterfalls, where you could swim, and the footprints of dinosaurs. But else just a sight of 20 min. 17.25 lari (parking 2 lari), boat 28 lari pp.
- 6 Dadiani summer palace, Salkhino (near Martvili).
- 7 Shurubumu Caves.
Other natural sights:
- Skuri caves and mineral water springs
- Mukhuri caves in the middle of the wild Georgian woods with moss rocks and river (swimming place)
- Lugela waterfalls
Churches and castles:
- Chkondidi (residence of the head of the Orthodox church, a unique monastery, the centre of royal land from the 10th century (near Martvili)
- 8 Monastery of Khobi (Trinity Church).
- Kheta fortress
Various other sights:
- Chkhorotskhu region and its Lebarde resort with mineral waters
- Dida Kirsa, an archaeological place with nice site seeing panorama
- Nodjikhevi, an archeological area with an old fortress and traditional Georgian village atmosphere near Khamiskuri
- Religious feast of Kvirikoba – 28 July, in Kala) is the best time to visit. Since a lot of people are in the area, you can feel pretty safe in traveling here independently—although it may be difficult to find accommodations. And food at feasts in this part of the world is good.
- Papantskhvili – A lake in mountains where according the legend local priest house with his family drowned. Old Soviet villa of politicians.
- 1 Mt. Urta. More than 200 caves, waterfalls, and mountainous rivers. The Pokori river with waterfalls where you could swim.
- 2 Nokalakevi Geothermal Park (Hot Springs) (Catch a marshrutka to Nokalakevi village from Senaki or Martvili.). A hidden gem in the middle of nowhere. Sulphur fountains, white cascades, and hot river pools. It is not frequented by many tourist, mostly by locals. But in 5 years time expect a paid car park and 10 lari entrance—promised! Bring a towel, and a shovel if you want to help. The great thing is the clean river nearby, which cools down the body after having had a hot bath or tested your strength under the boiling shower.
Shaking Rock (Kuakantsalia)
Also called 9 The Swinging Rock, near the village of 12 Chkvaleri, is a massive limestone boulder, weighting 10-12 tonnes, perched atop a bed of rock, at an altitude of 1,800 m in an almost treeless alpine area. The slightest pressure from a hand on the rock starts it shaking and making a knocking sound. Similar stones be found in other countries, but most of them are volcanic rock. A guide will be useful, but this can also be found by using GPS. Free to enter near the town of Jvari with 14 km of hiking through the forest and valleys. It is a 2-day hike.
The local legend about Kuakantsalia is that many centuries ago there was an enormous cannibal giant in the mountains of Egrisi, where the pure rivers Tsiskvilara, Chanistskhali, Intsira, Morozha and others flow. The giant visited the villages of Samegrelo and once a month kidnapped boys and girls to be eaten. The people were always afraid and suffered. There also lived a brave young man whose name was Aramkhut and the people believed that he could defeat the giant. The people asked Aramkhut to help them. Aramkhut said that he would begin and got ready for his battle with the giant. He went to the mountain Okhachkue and after a long time waiting the giant appeared. The distance between Aramkhut and the giant was 10 km. Realizing the fact that it was impossible to negotiate with the giant, he took a huge stone and threw it at the giant but with no effect. The giant was disturbed and started throwing stones at Aramkhut. After a long rock-throwing battle, Aramkhut took a huge rectangular stone, took aim and threw it. To his amazement the stone killed the giant. The size and the weight of the giant formed a massive hole where he fell among the bright green grass. The villagers celebrated the victory. Aramkhut was taken to Kvira mountain in triumph. He recovered the enormous stone that killed the giant and took it and put it on the place where it could shake by merely touching it with a finger. This story is told from generation to generation to celebrate the victory of kindness and the defeat of evil. Believe this or not, the stone really shakes.
Silver Lakes (hiking)
- 10 Silver Lakes (Tobavarchkhili). Free to enter.
Tobavarchkhili means "Silver Lakes" in the Megrulian language. These lakes are located in Samegrelo (Northwestern Georgia) on the southern slopes of the Egrisi Mountains. There are several small lakes surrounding the main one and all of them are beautiful in their own right. The main lake sits at an altitude of 2,650 m and is surrounded by snow-capped peaks even in the summer. The fresh water is fed by snow, rain and ground water and is a beautiful clear blue.
The best period for traveling starts from mid-June and lasts until mid-September. The water level is highest in the month of July. The only way to reach the Silver Lakes is by hiking for at least 3 days and 60 km. On average it will take 4-5 days. You may pass river gorges, forests, beautiful alpine valleys, snowy passes at altitudes up to 3,000 m, two big alpine lakes surrounded by stunning peaks, two-four smaller alpine lakes, waterfalls, canyons, glaciers, caves, stunning panoramas, and unreal landscapes enshrouded with fog. You will need to sleep in tents or shepherds huts where you can try Georgian cheese and Georgian vodka.
This is a difficult trek and inclement weather can make everything worse. Visitors need to be physically fit and equipped with appropriate clothing and boots. A guide for this trek is recommended and should be organised in advance. You will have to carry all the food and camping equipment with you, although donkeys can be hired to do the "donkey" work. Most treks will start from the village of Mukhuri, or you can hire a jeep to take you as far as possible to cut your hiking time down. The local legend about Tobavarchkhili is that this neat lake can't stand the dirt. If somebody washes his hands and body in the lake it becomes angry and causes rain to start within an hour. The rain will stop only when the lake becomes pure again.
You can download the GPS track to reach the lake directly, on GPSies, or consult OpenStreetMap for alternative routes, which is also used by this travel guide, and by many mobile Apps like OsmAnd (complex with many add-ons) and MAPS.ME (easy but limited).
Otherwise, several companies offer treks (5-8 days) to Tobavarchkhili. Ask around in Zugdidi or Jvari.
The obvious thing to do, in addition to sightseeing, is trekking and mountain climbing in the Greater Caucasus. The Shkhara and Ushba climbs are both technically challenging, and have very dangerous weather. Only experienced mountaineers should attempt the climbs. Mountain inclined dilettantes should instead consider a guided climb of Mount Kazbeg, in Georgia's Kartli region. There are several flagged trails, especially around Mestia, the tourist information in Mestia can give you additional information. The thing to do is basically to just wander out of your guest house, pick a direction that looks promising, and get trekking.
Several most exciting Svaneti trekking routes begin in Mazeri village in Becho community, among them:
- Mount Ushba trekking route
- Mazeri (Becho) - Guli pass - Koruldi lakes - Mestia trek
- Mazeri (Becho) - Baki pass - Etseri trek
4-day Svaneti Trek (Mestia to Ushguli)
There is a red and white flagged trail from Mestia to Ushguli. The tourist office and several souvenir shops in Mestia offer maps of the route, but these are not always very clear. Better maps may be available in good travel bookshops abroad. Route can also be walked in opposite direction, beginning in Ushguli.
Try to start hiking early, especially in summer, since it gets very hot around 11:00 and some parts of the route offer little shade. Bringing a tent gives you much more flexibility, but guesthouses are available in each of the villages along the route. One night plus dinner and breakfast costs around 40 lari per person; they can also give you some food for lunch.
Day 1: Mestia to Zhabeshi 7½ hr, partially along the road. The route is well marked going out of Mestia. When the airport is on your left, a sign on a rock will tell you to take a path uphill. The marks then lead to a stream, where you will have to cross a fence that is also marked. The route goes uphill and then descends into a valley, following a sledge road. You pass two small villages and will then follow the river to Zhabeshi, where there is a bridge leading into the village.
Day 2: Zhabeshi to Adishi 8 hr, greatest vertical distance along the route. There are spectacular views from ridge down into both valleys. Follow the stream that runs through Zhabeshi uphill, take the path right just before the end of the village. Keep following the path past farms. You need to cross the hill that is on your left, but the path here is very poorly marked. There is a ridge leading uphill which is not too steep and can be followed all the way uphill. When you reach the top, you should see a road that was still being built in August 2014. Go left on this road until it takes several hairpin turns steeply uphill, where there is a path to the right of the road. This leads you straight to Adishi through some beautiful meadows. The hill after Zabeshi is the easiest section to get lost, so you may wish to consider hiring a guide.
Day 3: Adishi to Iprali 8 hr. The first part follows the Adishi river, which you have to cross at some points. The water comes straight from the glacier so is ice-cold, but the water level differs along the river and also changes from day to day. You may want to rent a horse in Adishi to cross (50 lari), or if you have good hiking sandals and are in a group you could cross on foot. Otherwise, the path on this day is easy to follow: after the river you zigzag up for a while, through rhododendron bushes. Amazing views of the Adishi and Khalde glaciers at the top. The path then descends down into the valley, and will lead you to Iprali where there are several guesthouses.
Day 4: Iprali to Ushguli 4 hr along the jeep track that all transport from Mestia to Ushguli follows, along a river. It is possible to arrange a jeep or mashrutka back to Mestia from Ushguli. Costs vary between 150-200 lari, so if you can find a large group of people to fit into a minibus, the cost per person may be affordable. There are no regular mashrutkas from Ushguli to Mestia, although you may be able to get a ride from one that is taking people on a day tour from Mestia (these cost 30 lari round-trip).
It is possible to continue trekking into Lower Svaneti from Ushguli to Chvelpi, but it becomes a lot harder as the paths are unmarked and in poor condition, and it is inadvisable to attempt this in poor weather conditions.
The food differs from region to region within Northwestern Georgia, but its Mingrelian cuisine is perhaps its most famous, which is notably spicier than most Georgian food, and is just generally delicious.
Kubdari are a local delicacy from this region. These are khachapuri made with spiced mince meat.
The local wines are actually made of grapes from the Racha region, but any place is a good place to drink them! The best local wines are red, Barakoni and Khvanchkara. The latter was allegedly Stalin's favorite.
There are several homestays and guesthouses in and around Mestia and Ushguli, Svaneti. The Tourist information in Mestia has a list of families in other villages (especially between Mestia and Ushguli) which offer a homestay, speaking Georgian or Russian might be an advantage but is not necessary. Georgian and Russian speakers won't have any problem to find a place to sleep by asking people in the villages for an opportunity. Most homestays ask 30 lari (2008) for one night with dinner and breakfast, it may be negotiable. There are guesthouses in Mazeri, Mestia, Zhabeshi, Adishi, Iprali and Ushguli, open during the summer season June until September, catering to eco tourists and hikers.
- Village Adishi Guesthouse (Elisabeth Kaldani's Guest House) (Asking anyone in Adishi for Elizabeth Kaldani will get you there), ☏ , , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Family-run guest house run by fluent English- and Russian-speaking woman. Fantastic meals. Possibility to arrange horse rental for river crossing.
- Village Zhabeshi: Kakhiani Guesthouse (Luka) (when coming on the trail from Mestia to Zhadesi, cross the bridge over the river, walk straight in and you will find Luka and his guesthouse on the left side of the way), ☏ . Guesthouse run by fluent English- and Russian- speaking young Luka and an old woman. Super-friendly service, clean rooms and the by far cheapest place in town as all the others charge you for room, board and drinks. 30-40 lari for room and board (3 meals).
Northwestern Georgia is generally a safe travel destination. The Abkhazia conflict caused some destabilization in the region, but this has largely been settled (not in Georgia's favour). Samegrelo took in a number of the "refugees" from the Abkhazia conflict, but apart from stretching government, education and health resources this has not led to any ongoing security issues. A tourist in Samegrelo should experience no worse problems than in the rest of the country.
Svaneti was largely untouched by the conflict to its west. Never truly subdued by any foolhardy invader, even the Soviets failed to subdue the fierce Svan mountain tribes who inhabit these high mountain fortress-villages. Georgians themselves claim to be a little afraid of the natives here. The Svans were once renowned as being an aggressive and insular group, however, this has changed in recent years as tourism has boomed. Now the biggest problem tourists will face is rising prices, especially if you are a foreigner or don't speak the local language. On the other hand, if accepted as a guest of a Svan, the Svans are renowned for their legendary hospitality. The security situation improved somewhat after Saakashvili came to power. You should not have any security concerns when visiting Svaneti; it is far too wonderful a travel destination to miss. Travelling to Svaneti is not a big safety risk anymore and is possible for backpackers. However, common security precautions should be taken.
Nervous passengers may want to brace themselves for the marshrutka ride there—the drivers' speeds on the mountain roads certainly aren't for the faint of heart.
From Svaneti, there is a lonely and poor quality mountain road leading east to the beautiful and safer mountain region of Racha. If you are a hardy trekker, and know what you are doing, you could also head into upper Racha by foot, over mountains. There are routes heading North into Russia's North Caucasus and into Abkhazia, but this should not be attempted. Both borders are closed (although enforcement is impossible), and if caught by the Georgians or the Russians, you will find yourself in trouble and alone in a strange and often cruel land.