Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.
The "problem" of most tourists is that they don't have enough time, both for research and traveling. And information is scarce.
So this is one of my goals - to inspire interest and to introduce Svaneti not just as another picturesque destination but something you become familiar with even before your visit. Not just jumble of unfamiliar peaks and valleys but distinct places with their names and history.
For most people the road from Zugdidi to Mestia is hardly more than 3-4 hours spent on a bumpy road of 136 km while being drowsy after an early wake up call in the train from Tbilisi (or shared taxi from Kutaisi). Very few consider it part of their travel; for majority the important thing is to get to Mestia where things are more exciting. True, not all seats in marshrutka are good for seeing what's there outside (to get your window seats arrive earlier) but with some determination you may succeed.
So here is the famous Inguri Road (which I believe is more interesting than Georgian Military Road to Kazbegi) illustaretd with 10 photographs of different places along it. All of them are easily recognizable.
Svaneti is as beautiful as the road which brings you there!
1. Zugdidi is 30 minutes away and after crossing Magana river (flows from Tobavarchkhili Lakes) the road enters higher places and starts to climb up leaving the coastal plane far behind. Across the valley you can spot Egrissi Range (photo 1) with it's saw-like ridges and before July is still covered with snow. No other range is as close to the Black Sea as Egrissi which despite it's very modest heights (up to 3300m) carries some small glaciers.
2. Inguri Dam and reservoir (photo 2)are perhaps the most known attractions of the road. On the web you can easily find facts about this huge constuction. The reservoir is quite beautiful in particular when water is color of turquoise.
3. After Khaishi (the first sizable village of Svaneti) the road crosses bridge to the right bank. Here is a confluence with mighty Nenskra - the valley on the western border of Svaneti and Kodori Range above it creating a high barrier separating it from Abkhazia. From this point the valley turns into a narrow gorge (photo 3) with roaring Inguri just below the wheels. This part of the road is the most thrilling.
4. Nakra valley marks the midpoint of the road. Clear water of Nakra is unlike grey streams of Inguri. Nakra village is relatively new, only in 1930-th svans started to move to this once totally uninhabited and wild valley. Donguz-Orun Pass (3250m) in it's upper reaches is the easiest link to Northern Caucasus and brings you after a long day's walk straight to the foot of Mt. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe).
5. Road steadily climbs up leaving the river far below. From now on the distant views are not hidden anymore. Long switchbacks take you even higher. From above, when looking west you see Mt.Shtavleri (3993m) a massive pyramid in the range separating Nakra and Nenskra valleys. On your right hand side still closer are Bakildi Ridge (part of Svaneti Range) and numerous attractive looking villages 2000m below. Beyond it is Lower Svaneti, beautiful region but loosing in comparison with it's northern neighbor - Upper (or Zemo) Svaneti of high peaks and glaciers.
6. On 110 km the road is still high above Inguri and Mt.Layla though modestly comes into view. Below are four villages of Tskhumari community known for it's excellent harvests of walnuts.
7. If the day is not overcast and your seat is on the left side (stretch your neck of not) you will have an absolutely grand view of Mt.Ushba (it's South summit), Guli glacier and Guli pass.
8. Road makes a large half loop and passing by Tskhumari road sign turns east. High snow peaks (5000m high or alsmost so) appear on the horizon while closer is the beautiful valley with steep slopes above the river. Excilarating view... Latali community is getting closer.
9. A bit later turn your head to the right and you will be greeted by Laylachala - the valley of 8 glaciers!
10. After leaving Latali, Mestia is not far, only 9 km away. Now, when Inguri is behind a wooded Zagar Range we are in the valley of Mulkhura. Lendjeri community with it's many towers is easily recognizable while Gvalda Range dominates the view with it's highest mountain - Banguriani (3857m).
Welcome to Mestia!
First recorded in Hesiod's Theogony (c. 700 BC), Pasis is an ancient Greek name of Rioni, one of the great rivers of the Caucasus with it's source in the glaciers of mountain region of Racha.
Racha is a seldom visited place. However, it wasn't always so. During the Soviet era there was a well-known resort in Shovi, the place rich with mineral springs and attractive because of it's mild climate. Geologists explored the rich deposits of ore in Zophitura valley. Moreover, there were tourist groups (although not as numerous as in Abhazia) who crossed the popular Gebivtsek and Gurjivtsek passes. After collapse of USSR Racha has sunk into oblivion.
Map from 1718. Poti of today was Pasis, Kutaisi was Cotais and Svans (Soanes) lived on the other side of the Caucasus Range. This map clearly shows how little known Georgia was .
Many years passed since I visited there and only in summer of 2015 I have decided to return.
Join me for this short yet spectacular trip!
Starting point was Didube bus station in Tbilisi. Bus left at 8 AM and only in the late hours of afternoon I arrived to Oni. Road, in particular it's part above Tkibuli, was very beautiful. After crossing Nakerala Pass and seeing blue waters of Shaori with high snow peaks on the horizon I felt a strong heartbeat in anticipation of getting into this magnificent place.
Shaori reservoir and snow peaks of Caucasus Main Range
Oni is a village but it's paved lanes with street lamps, spacious central square with large hotel and a massive building of synagogue might be misleading. Is it actually a small town? But after a while you realize that it is certainly a village though large and well planned.
Synagogue of Oni with Mt. Shoda (3605m) in the background
Today you almost won't find any Jews in Oni but once there was a well-integrated community of more than 600. In 1970-1990 they all left for Israel but occasionally old people come to visit (photo below). Their inborn link to Racha is still very strong. Abandoned jewish houses and overgrown cemetry on the outskirts of Oni look rather sad.
Jews of Oni, once and today
I carried on to the main village of High Racha, Gebi. Few people know that once it was part of Svaneti and there were numerous towers which unfortunately didn't survive.
Towers or not, this is a very attractive place set amid some truly magnificent mountains...
Those days in August 2015 were extremely hot and local men (women had a separate spot elsewhere) took a refreshing bath in a small pool dug by bulldhozer in a wide river bed of Rioni, just outside of Gebi.
I took a deep breath and plunged following others into a freezing mountain water. It was invigorating and made my next hours of walking considerably easier.
Three man from Border Control met me in Shiukachala (6 km from Gebi) a small place with few summer houses further up from the Zophitura iron bridge. They told me that the group from "czekoslovakia" (in Georgia many people still use this name) went ahead of me and there is still 2,5-3 hours walk to Rioni Refuge.
Road between Gebi and Shiukachala
So I decided to camp and to start early in the morning. Pitched my tent next to the Border Control station which is no more than the simple house they use for sleep and rest. Was presented with loaf of bread and matsoni (Georgian variety of yogurt), invited to come over for "talk".
Which I did after darkness fell and when there was not much else to do. With single candle and their uninterrupted cigarette smoke the conversation went smoothly from one subject to another. These man were simple and true to themselves.
My tent and Tsihvarga (4180m) imersed in a blue colour of dusk.
Morning was clear and warm. Soon I was back on the trail which soon, after crossing the wide rocky bed of black slate, brought me to spacious sun-drenched meadows.
Then it took me further; through the shady carpinus woods, across numerous streams and meadows full of cricket's chirps. The day was hot and to walk on meadows was quite exhausting.
Thank you, tree! Here is much cooler.
This trail runs along the high bank of Rioni, is quite level and easy (apart from spot where high banks of a side stream had to be negotiated). In June-July when there are more rains (and floods) and grass is taller this route may become a challenge. Ahead, all the way to Sasvano Lakes was clearly visible.
1. Sasvano lakes
2. pass to Svaneti
3. Pasismta (3856m)
4. Gezevtsek Pass (to Russia)
5. Edenamta (3800m)
At 14:00 after crossing still another creek I entered a wide meadow. To the left, amid tall weeds I could recognize the stone structure of Gezevtsek Refuge. Tried to break through this thick and thorny wall but in vain... Returned back to trail. Supposed to be some way to access it, right?
Gezevtsek Refuge (right) and pass (not used anymore) to Lukhuni valley
Eventually after a brief search I found that there was a path leading to refuge from the right hand side through the backyard. Steel and rusty roof still covered one room making it livable. Interior was spartan: roughly made wooden "bed" covered with hay and wool blankets, fireplace with some pots and writings on the wall gave a clue about the former guests of this unassuming place. To the credit - this place was clean. Once this refuge was used (when the border with Russia didn't exist) by hikers who joined government subsidized trekking groups across the passes of Main Caucasus. Those huts were of very decent quality but didn't survive the last decade of 20th century.
So now I was facing a dilemma - should I stay here or move forward and camp at Sasvano Lakes? It was cool inside and I had no desire to leave it for a blazing sun outside. It is important to mention that the air on the southern slopes of Main Caucasus is typically heavy with flower fragrance and on a hot day this is not a blessing as you might think...
I decided to stay. Unpacked, made things inside more homey and relaxed while reading a book ("Hadji Murat" by Tolstoy). In couple of hours it became obvious that my decision to stay was completely justified. At first sky turned dim and minutes later some heavy drops heralded the coming rain that started a noisy drum beat on a steel roof of the refuge. If I would go to lakes I would be completely soaked. That's for sure!
I started to appreciate this refuge even more!
The night was cool and I realized that the weather will be clear and sunny. On the other hand the forecast for coming days wasn't too promising.
Line of ascent from the refuge to Sasvano Lakes
In the morning I decided to leave my backpack at the refuge and go light. Needles to say - I was dripping wet after only few minutes walk in tall grass. Noticed a few exceptionally tall species of Herculaneum, it's name is apt as it grows to some fearsome height of 3-4 metres.
Don't ever touch it, especially on sunny day. You won't feel anything at first, but in few days the parts of skin that were in contact with this weed will be badly burned. ..
Part 2 will be posted next week
I drew this map so you will have better idea of the area