Day Hiking in Georgia

posted Jul 21, 2018, 6:20 PM by Paul Wagner
Our friend and fan Walter sent us this report of a trip he and his wife took to Georgia to hike in the Caucasus Mountains.  Since P has visited Georgia for his work in wine, we were really interested in this one!  It's long--but Walter writes really well, and it's worth the read!

Dear M&P

My wife and I booked a trip to the Republic of Georgia with a company that promised day hikes in the Caucasus Mountains. We are both avid hikers and sometime backpackers as well as experienced world travelers, so this seemed like a good idea at the time. Four of the five full-day hikes were to take place in Tusheti National Park, which is in a remote region in the northeast part of the country bordering Chechnia to the north and Dagestan to the east (both part of the Russian Federation). The fifth day of hiking was to take place near Kazbegi, which is north of the capital city of Tbilisi near the Russian border, and under the shadow of 16,000 foot Mt. Kazbek.

GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN. The first thing you have to do is find a way to fly to the main city of Tbilisi. Nearly all flights from Western Europe arrive in the middle of the night for some odd reason. Ours got in from Munich at three a.m. So there’s that. Also the time difference from California is eleven hours. Not fun. After a few days of jet-lagged sightseeing in Tbilisi we were driven about three hours eastward through a pleasant countryside and over a low range of mountains to reach the wine-growing region of Kakheti. After lunch we turned onto the road that goes to the Tusheti region. That’s when the pavement ended, and the terror began. The road is about 50 miles long and climbs over 9500 foot Albano Pass. This should have taken about four hours if all had gone well, which it did not.

The topography in this part of the world is vertical — I can’t emphasize that enough — and the local geology is slate and shale, so it’s not very stable, and at the very least it makes for a bumpy road. There is also a lot of water tumbling down, which does not help matters and which makes for a lot of very tall, thin waterfalls and a lot of water crossings. For most of its length the road is simply a narrow ribbon carved out of the side of the mountain slopes. There are too many hairpin turns to count, and the drop-offs are thousands of feet. We have traveled on frightening roads in a number of places around the world, so we are not newcomers to this sort of thing; but we’ve never traveled on anything so consistently terrifying as the Tusheti road. I closed my eyes at times because it seemed like a reasonable alternative to ruining a good pair of pants. If you doubt this, check out the BBC video on YouTube entitled The World’s Most Dangerous Roads or any one of a dozen other videos about the road to Tusheti.

The highlight of our drive was a rockslide that occurred at one of the highest points of the road. It had been raining, and we actually saw the slide occurring as we approached. It completely covered about fifty feet of roadway in three or four feet of shale and mud. Various plans were considered, including just turning back to Kakheti, but in the end our drivers and some other drivers who were similarly trapped decided to see what they could do with shovels. It was impossible to clear the slide, but in about 90 minutes the guys had leveled out the slide somewhat and fashioned steep “ramps” at both ends. After one false start (you don’t want to know), all three of our group’s vehicles — without passengers — lurched and tottered over the slide area. The drop-off was at least 2000 feet at that point. When the vehicles were safely on the other side, the passengers scrambled over the slide on foot and remounted. There were other highlights on this road, including a sort of car wash where the road went under a small waterfall and another point where the road passed between eight-foot banks of snow on either side with a raging little stream flowing under those snowbanks and across the road. Hard to believe, but that’s what it did.

The moral of this story is that you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to Tusheti as there is no other way to get there other than by horse or on foot. And you had better hire a professional driver because this is a seriously dangerous road. I’ve discovered on line that such drivers are available for a reasonable price.

WHAT TUSHETI LOOKS LIKE. I would say that Tusheti looks like the Alps, but I’ve never been to the Alps. It looks like picture postcards of the Alps. There are towering, rocky, snow-capped peaks all around, I think around 12,000 to 14,000 feet. If you get high enough you can see 360 degrees of snow-capped peaks. In the near distance there are lower mountains covered mostly with pine and deciduous trees, often in alternating strips, and above the tree line it is green. Everything is very steep. Few people live in Tusheti any more. There are about 50 tiny villages, which usually consist of a handful of slate houses. Many look abandoned, but it’s hard to tell. In any event, the population is low in the summer and very low in the winter, which is long and harsh. Many of the inhabitants are shepherds who move their sheep or cows down to Kakheti for the winter. There are a lot of sheep, and the cows look just like the cows in postcards of Switzerland. There are also a lot of horses and hardly any fences. There are also few tourists because (a) it’s Georgia and (b) this place is seriously hard to get to. The Tushetians are working on tourism, however, and one village, called Omalo, aka Upper Omalo, is working particularly hard. They are building some new guest houses, albeit small and in the traditional style, and repurposing some older buildings as cafes or shops. It looked a bit trashy or at least chaotic to me. More ramshackle than quaint. I could see it someday becoming a destination for young Lonely Planet backpacker types. But 99% of Tusheti is pristine. In four days of hiking we saw only one person on the trail who was not part of our little group.

The most outstanding feature of Tusheti, at least in June, is the wildflowers. I have never in all my travels seen wildflowers in such profusion and such variety. They are simply everywhere. There are entire hillsides covered with white rhododendrons. There are lush green fields covered with buttercups. There are wildflowers of every imaginable kind and color. Put that together with the snow-capped peaks, the rushing streams, and the deep canyons — it must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Way beyond my expectations and well worth the trouble of getting there.

Hiking trails and roads range from about 5000 feet in elevation to something over 9000 feet. River deep, mountain high.

HIKING IN TUSHETI. We did four day-hikes in Tusheti. The first took us from our guesthouse to the nearby “information-center” and then down about 1500 feet to a river. The information center is a beautiful wood and stone structure but with no electricity, no water, and no employees save for one old man. Half of the display cases are empty, and it’s a bit dark inside. Welcome to Georgia. Donated money is not always well spent. Worthy projects sometimes go unfinished. Our vehicles picked us up at a bridge on the river and took us up a steep set of switchbacks to our guide’s native village of Shenako, where we had lunch at her mother’s house. After lunch we made a circuit of a small mountain on an absolutely terrible up-and-down trail, ending up at the tiny village of Diklo, where, incredibly, there was a shop that sold beer. On that hike we got a good view of the snowy ridge that forms the border between Georgia and Russia, and as we descended into Diklo we came upon an idyllic scene of small cows grazing in fields of buttercups. On this hike we also saw a few Dagestani houses down below that were said to be in no-man’s-land, technically within Georgia’s borders but said to be controlled by Russia. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would care, it’s so rugged and remote, but you could have said that about South Ossetia as well, and the Russians took that by force in 2008. The hike was about nine miles in total, which doesn’t sound like much, but there is no such thing as flat in Tusheti. The trail was very sketchy, and I would surely have lost it several times if not for our guide. It was hard enough that my wife decided that this trip was going to be more than she could comfortably handle, even though we would only be carrying day packs. At the end of the day we were mercifully driven back to the guesthouse in Shenako where we had eaten lunch, and we spent the night there.

On the second day we set out on what was billed as the most challenging hike. We drove a short distance from Shenako toward Diklo to an unmarked trailhead and then set off up the side of a mountain. It was 1400 feet steeply up to the ridge line and then 2400 feet steeply down to a river. It was relentlessly steep both ways, but at least it was under cover. There was a rough bridge across the river, and then we went straight up again what must have been another 1500 feet to the village of Chigho, where we had lunch. In the afternoon we walked another five miles along a dirt road to the village of Dartlo, arriving just before a thunderstorm broke. It was twelve miles in total, and it seemed to me that the descent was harder than the uphills, although some in our little group had serious trouble with the second climb. My wife wisely passed on the morning hike and got a ride to Chigho, where she joined us for lunch and then walked the rest of the way to Dartlo. Half of the folks who did the morning hike decided they’d had enough and were driven to Dartlo.

On day three we drove to a trailhead above the tree line, and we hiked up from there. Up and up. This is where we saw whole hillsides blanketed in white rhododendrons, an unbelievable sight. After about three hours of exposed hiking we stopped at the top of a long ridge from which there was a panoramic view of rocky, snow-capped peaks in all directions. We could also see three different valleys far below — a bird’s eye view of Tusheti. I think we were somewhere over 9000 feet. After a leisurely picnic lunch we spent a couple of hours wending our way down the other end of the ridge to a dirt road near the village of Dochu where our vehicles were waiting. On our drive back to our guesthouse we stopped at a village called Bochorna that is said to be the highest continuously occupied village in Europe. There is a USAID sign that says so, but if you google this you will find that a village in Svaneti, Georgia, makes the same claim, but is Georgia part of Europe anyway? Who do you believe? This day’s hike was about nine miles. The weather was cool, which was fortunate.

On day four we were warned that there would be an extremely steep stretch, and that turned out to be true. We started out on from our guesthouse and descended several switchbacks on the dirt road leading down to the river. We then crossed the bridge and headed upriver on a branch of the same road. After three or four miles of these preliminaries we started up the side of the canyon. There was a trail, more or less, but there were no switchbacks. It just went straight up. My wife rode a kindly old horse all the way up this rugged stretch. She loved it, and the horse seemed to enjoy it as well. We had two other horses, and two of the other women in the group eventually mounted up, too. With several stops for the slower hikers and the plodding horses, it took us about two hours to get to the top, where there was a vast green meadow full of wildflowers and another spectacular view. We enjoyed another leisurely picnic lunch there before descending by a different route to the village of Khiso (I think). The villages tend to look alike. The way up was at least under cover. The way down was steep, exposed, rocky, and treacherous, but we all stayed on our feet, and somehow there was beer in the village. This was another nine or ten mile day.

ACCOMMODATIONS. Tusheti is primitive. There are no hotels, only small guest houses, and those are few and far between except in Omalo, which appears to have several. Omalo also has a pathetic souvenir shop and a pathetic cafe. I don’t recommend staying there, but there aren’t many choices, and a visit to the fortress towers on the hill just above is mandatory. Some brave soul tried to build a hotel near Omalo, but it has remained unfinished for years. It looks like barracks. Part of the problem is money, and part of the problem is finding staff. Most Tushetians have better things to do, and most non-Tushetians simply don’t want to be there because . . . primitive. This and the difficulty of access could put a serious damper on tourism or at least on high end tourism, which is the kind a country like Georgia needs. Outside of Omalo I’m not sure if there’s anything else that could really be called a shop or cafe, although you might be able to buy beer and snacks if you know who to ask.

We spent three nights at a guesthouse a few miles from Omalo and about a mile from the information center. It bills itself as the Hotel Tusheti and is swank by Tushetian standards but is still pretty basic. It has maybe a dozen rooms. Some rooms have en suite facilities and others do not. It was a bit full when we were there, and some guests slept on the floor in the hall. No one seemed to mind. Sometimes we had running water and sometimes we didn’t, and sometimes the water was hot. Decor is ethnic and odd, and there are numerous animal pelts on the walls — bears, deer, badgers (?). (Our guide told us that if you want to capture a bear you should sneak up from behind and grab both of it ears. This renders the bear helpless. She was serious. I started to say “but how do you . . .” but thought it best just to drop the subject.). There was no heat, so we had to layer up one night. Other nights were warmer. Food was good and plentiful, especially if you like cold eggplant, but breakfast didn’t start until 8:30, so if you woke up at six, as we usually did, you had a long wait for your morning Nescafé. This was the case everywhere we traveled. Georgians are not early risers. We spent one night at a much smaller and more basic guesthouse in Shenako. It was more like a home stay. Small rooms, shared facilities, no usable showers, although some lucky members of our group got to use the shower in a neighbor’s house. Uncle Somebody. Everyone is related in Tusheti. We also spent another night at a small guesthouse in Dartlo. Our room was basically a closet with two single beds, a chair, and no room for anything else. It was “rustic.” There was at least a real shower and a real toilet, although we shared it with three other couples. The food, was pretty good, as it was everywhere we went, but the dining area was open to the elements, so we were chilly at dinner. The setting was spectacular.

We really didn’t know what to expect but were not surprised by the spartan accommodations. The Four Seasons does not have a hotel in Tusheti, and that’s a good thing. We are accustomed to backpacking in wilderness areas, so we were quite happy with real beds, such as they were, a roof, which came in handy during the thunderstorm, and a toilet nearby. All of the guest houses had electricity some of the time thanks to solar panels and batteries. Showers, where available, were a nice bonus. We slept well and had no complaints.

TRANSITION. We managed to make our way back over Albano Pass on the world’s scariest road without incident and were back in the wine region of Kakheti by early afternoon. The slide had been cleared. We had lunch al fresco at a private home. The food was good, but the setting was a bit humble. The privy was even humbler, but let’s not talk about that. My wife took one look and sneaked around the back. (Much of Georgia, even in the more populated regions and even in the backstreets of Tbilisi, seems like the third world. The Soviet system was not kind to Georgia nor was the bleak period that followed independence. They are doing better now.). That night we stayed at a weird winery/hotel In Kakheti called Chateau Mere. Imagine a fake castle with pornographic photos in all the rooms and beds that featured a kind of seesaw effect. You don’t find hotels like that every day. We did no hiking on that day, and the less said about the hotel the better.

The next day we drove back to Tbilisi briefly and then headed due north on the main highway to Russia, known as the Military Highway. It’s another narrow road over a mountain pass, but it’s two lanes all the way and paved and open all winter thanks to snow tunnels. It does a lot of twisting and turning, but it’s heavily traveled, particularly by commercial trucks going to and from Russia. There is a big ski area on the way up to the pass, but there’s not much going on there in June. Unfortunately, our beautiful Mercedes Benz minibus called it quits before we reached the summit, and we had to wait a few hours in the Georgian equivalent of a gas station minimart. Very educational. Dunkin Donuts of all things.

KAZBEGI. Help arrived, and we finally crossed the pass and made it to the tourist town of Kazbegi in the early evening. It’s quite the opposite of Tusheti. It’s bustling, chaotic, and well developed. The place we stayed was also nothing like a Tushetian guesthouse. It was a 160-room luxury hotel, and it was filled to capacity. When we got to our room, we suddenly understood Kazbegi’s raison d’etre: Our room had a full-on view of Mount Kazbek, a 16,000 foot behemoth. It was like having a hotel room with a picture window at the foot of Mount Shasta. There was a full moon that night, and we left the drapes open. Every time we woke up, there it was, looming awesomely in the moonlight. The hotel was nice enough if you like big, busy hotels; but it was really all about the mountain. Kazbek is not the tallest mountain in Georgia, but that seemed irrelevant.

We had only one day of hiking in this area. In the morning we set out from the hotel, walked down through the town, and began ascending toward the mountain; but we would only be climbing the nearest hill to visit an ancient monastery at the top. It’s quite a hill — plenty big and steep — and it was nice to have a guide because there were a lot of alternate trails to choose from. It was probably four or five miles to the monastery, and it was hot, and when we got there we found out that there was a road and that dozens of vehicles had beaten us up the hill. We toured the small church and wandered around the walled grounds, rubbing shoulders with a few hundred of our new best friends. We were not impressed with the monastery — not all old things are interesting — and we’d already toured several Georgian churches. There is a sameness to them. The crush of overweight tourists taking selfies did not brighten our day. We were eventually were driven back to our hotel.

In the afternoon my wife decided that she’d had enough hiking. Some others in our group did as well. That was a shame because the afternoon hike was very pleasant. We were driven up to the village of Juta on a bad dirt road (but they’re working on it). That part took 45 minutes and was not pleasant. Then we set off up a very steep and rocky path. After half a mile the trail turned into a gentle climb up a wide green valley toward a jagged group of mountains that looked like a picture postcard of Patagonia. It was heavenly. It was also a popular place, unlike Tusheti. In the lower part of the valley there were a couple of tiny hostel-type lodges where you could either stay in the lodge or pitch a tent outside. It looked like a good deal. We simply hiked up the valley for a couple of miles, sat and relaxed for a while, and returned the way we had come. The next day we headed back to Tbilisi for a final day and then home. We had to leave our hotel at three a.m. to catch our five a.m. flight.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED? Tusheti is a magical sort of place, but getting there is an adventure in itself, also potentially magical if you like to be scared, and the accommodations are basic, not magical, and require some patience. As noted, except for the lateness of coffee and breakfast we had no significant complaints (but that was a big one). But what would be the best way to see Tusheti? Even if all you want to do is day hikes, I think you are going to need a guide. There are topo maps with all the trails marked, but what trails are worth your trouble, how do you find the trailhead, how will you get there, and how do you find your way? There are a few road signs in both Roman letters and Georgian letters (absolute gibberish) pointing the way to villages, but in four days of hiking we didn’t see a single sign for a trailhead or trail junction. You just have to know where you are going. In some places the trails are sketchy and/or present a number of confusing alternatives. You may come to a village, but is there a place to stay, to eat, to buy beer and snacks? You don’t know, and for the most part the locals don’t speak English. They are friendly, generous, and hospitable, but there may be a failure to communicate. (On the other hand, Georgian shepherd dogs are large and downright hostile in the wrong circumstances. They are guard dogs. This can be a serious problem if you don’t know what to do, and therein lies another story.) This is not to say that a guide is an absolute necessity. There are good topo maps. You also can learn a lot from the internet, and maybe a GPS unit would be useful. Tushetians, if you can find one, would probably be happy to help you out if you could make yourself understood. Otherwise you would just have to surrender yourself to the fates, use your best judgment, and hope for the best. For some people that’s the ideal way to travel. We’re not quite that brave in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language.

We went with an outfit called Wilderness Travel, which is based in Berkeley and offers numerous trips with a wide range of difficulties. Our group consisted of four couples ranging in age from 60 to 70 (we’re both 70) and a single woman who was maybe 45. The trip was rated a “four” in difficulty on a scale of one to seven. Unfortunately, it was a bit too difficult for a few of our group, reasonably fit though they were; but there were ways of getting around that, namely riding one of the horses for a while or cutting the day short. Personally, although I didn’t care much for the steepest downhills, I had no trouble keeping the pace. Overall I enjoyed each of the hikes and loved the countryside. We found that all of the other folks on the trip had traveled many times with Wilderness Travel and had done day hikes all over the world — the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Dolomites, Patagonia, and so forth. That was just their thing. We, on the other hand, are Sierra backpackers. We’ve also done lots of day hikes on our own in places around the US and Canada but hardly any guided ones. At the same time, we’ve done a lot of international travel, but by and large they’ve been nature trips, “fur and feathers” in places like Borneo and Botswana. So, surprisingly, we had a clash of cultures on this trip. The other folks, with one exception, had absolutely no interest in backpacking or in wildlife. As one guy said to me, “If I can’t have a beer, a hot shower, and a warm bed at the end of the day, I’m not interested.” When I explained the kind of backpacking we do, one woman, aghast, asked “but what if something happens to you?” So we tended to keep our mouths shut about backpacking and nature trips. Instead, we listened to a lot of stories about day hikes, and that was interesting enough. In any event, we saw no wild animals at all and very few birds. We did see several golden eagles.

Another thing we discovered is that we don’t really like hiking in groups. We didn’t think that would be an issue, but we found that we like to be alone, and we like to set our own pace and do as we please. Our group was nice enough, but I often thought what a wonderful time we could be having by ourselves, only we really couldn’t because we would have needed a guide. I’m quite capable of losing the trail in the Sierras, where I feel at home. I would certainly have lost my way in Tusheti, which is not the best way to achieve solitude. So, different strokes for different folks. I asked our guide about backpacking in Tusheti, knowing that she has led many such trips in recent years. She said that she takes clients on a seven-day point to point trip through the wilderness, but it is “supported,” meaning that there is a whole entourage of porters, cooks, pack horses, and wranglers. This has no appeal for us at, but that’s just personal preference. There’s nothing objectively better or worse about that kind of trekking, though some may think so. I asked our guide about just heading up the trail alone with a pack, and she said “Oh, God, why would anyone want to do that?” So that was a short conversation. Still, I believe there are a few in Tusheti who do just that, and I understand that if can get yourself to Omalo by yourself there may be folks who will guide you on short trips; but I really can’t speak to that. There are Georgian companies like Georgian Highlands that run a variety of extended trips to Tusheti. I really can’t speak to that either. Their website is not the most informative I’ve seen.

Our guide was a woman named Eka Tchvritidze, an interesting character to say the least. She and her husband own a small winery in Kakheti that they call Danieli. In the US their wines are marketed by Blue Danube. There was a lot of wine drinking on this trip and some wine tasting as well, which was all good, but there isn’t much I can say about it. I don’t dislike wine, but I have no palate. It all just tastes like wine to me, so there isn’t much point in my drinking the good stuff. At home I stick with beer.

Walter J