Svaneti is a high mountain region in Northwestern Georgia, home of the fierce and chivalric Svans. An extraordinary and surreal land of towers, snow, craggy peaks, wine, and dancing; where gold was fleeced, where time has not merely stopped, but rather simply never existed. The entire region is a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Lower Svaneti
- Upper Svaneti
- Mestia — the Svan capital
- Mazeri — a stunningly beautiful mountain village. The starting point for Svaneti Mount Ushba trekking.
- Ushguli — perhaps the most picturesque Svan village, at the bottom of Georgia's highest mountain, Shkhara
Knowledge of Georgian is widespread, but the main language spoken here is another offering from the same family, the unwritten Svan language. Russian speakers can probably get by in most villages, where at least one person around should be conversational in the language.
English is spoken by a few young people and a few guesthouse owners speak basic English. Basic tourism vocabulary is widely understood in Mestia, the regional capital.
Queen Tamar Airport offers flights to Mestia that are operated by Serviceair.
The main road leading into the region comes from Kutaisi through Zugdidi. You can catch a marshrutka going here from Tbilisi, which will take a full 12 hours to reach Mestia. Due to the construction of a new road between Zugdidi and Mestia, the largest town in the region, transport times have massively decreased.
Night trains (8 hrs) between Zugdidi and Tbilisi are co-ordinated with early morning (7-8 am) marshrutka departures (15 GEL) from Zugdidi to Mestia, which take a bit over three hours. Booking in advance for the train recommended.
There is some very basic and inconvenient marshrutka service from town to town, but it's generally easier to hire a taxi to get from point A to B.
Hiking from town to town is also very much 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.
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.
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 11am 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 40GEL per person; they can also give you some food for lunch.
Day 1: Mestia to Zhabeshi 7.5 hours, 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 hours, 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 hours. 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 (50GEL), 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 hours 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 GEL 150-200, 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 GEL 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.
Several most exciting Svaneti trekking routes begins in Mazeri village in Becho community.
- Mount Ushba trekking route
- Mazeri(Becho) - Guli pass - Koruldi lakes - Mestia trek
- Mazeri(Becho) - Baki pass - Etseri trek
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.
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!
The 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!
- 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 homestay and guesthouse options in and around Mestia and Ushguli. 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 - or Russian speaking people 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, about 25 US Dollars) 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 (Asking anyone in Adishi for Elizabeth Kaldani will get you there), ☎ . Family run guesthouse run by fluent English and Russian speaking woman. Fantastic meals. Possibility to arrange horse rental for river crossing. GEL 20 for room, GEL 40-50 for room and board (2 meals).
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 security situation improved somewhat after Saakashvili came to power. Travelling to Svaneti is not a big safety risk anymore and is possible for backpackers. However, common security precautions should be taken.
There are two mountain roads exiting the Svaneti region, one of which is serviced by daily Marshrutkas to Zugdidi for GEL 20. The second road runs from Ushguli directly to Kutaisi but is in very bad shape and requires you arrange a private vehicle. Daily flights are available from Mestia to Tbilisi for GEL 75, weather permitting. For the more adventurous, however, there is a very poor quality mountain road leading east to Oni in the beautiful 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 formally 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.