At 06:00 we’re awake, packed and shuffling out of our private overnight train compartment in the dark in the awesomely named city of Zugdidi. The closest city to the border of the separatist region of Abkhazia, Zugdidi has been housing refugees of the conflict since the 1990’s and is the jumping off point for our next destination of Svaneti. Feeling real fresh after the antics and train of last night we’re deposited in the outskirts of town with a plethora of taxi drivers vying for our business. Hooking up with another four travellers secures us a private 4WD van for 150GEL (USD$10 each) and we’re off to the mountains.
The sun still has a couple of hours sleep as we climb in altitude, weaving through the foothills of the Caucasus past frozen waterfalls and recent rock slides and avalanches. Due to its inaccessibility the Upper Svaneti region has managed to preserve its culture, language and some of their pre-Christian beliefs separate from the rest of Georgia and even the Soviet invaders. The area is so remote that supposedly many a valuable treasury items (including rare biblical manuscripts) are still stored up here, though the locals apparently remain tight lipped if the subject is raised.
By now we are above the low cloud as the sun paints the surrounding mountains in an amber hue. Our driver is kind enough to pull over to allow us to breath in the fresh mountain air whilst snapping off a couple of shots. With a quick pit stop on the five hour drive from Zugdidi for our first experience of khachapuri, a Georgian staple of cheese cooked inside fresh bread, in the middle of the mountains we meet a road crew who have been clearing a section of avalanche prone road for the last five months. While looking for some water one of the guys leads Matt behind the tiny restaurant where we fills his bottle with sulphury fresh water flowing straight from the mountain. We have a real sense that we are heading to the middle of nowhere.
With darkness having turned to and the eerie shapes of the famous snow covered Svan defensive towers begin to reveal themselves. Once used by the families of the valleys as protection from natural disasters, defensive towers or warning beacons (bringing images of Lord of the Rings to mind) sadly most of the inner floors have now collapsed and the majority of the towers are beginning to decay. UNESCO has now classed the towers of Mestia as World Heritage Sites furthering the restoration and preservation of these impressive fortifications and the town now has the most remaining towers in the region with the youngest being around 200 years old.
Mestia is an impossibly gorgeous village nestled in the Caucasus Mountains which draws the summer tourists for its magnificent village to village hiking. We’re here in the depths of winter and that can mean only one thing – snowboarding. Walking around town looking for ski hire there’s a strange feeling that much of the town has been built in anticipation of a tourism boom and whilst this may be the case in summer in the middle of winter the place feels slightly deserted. The main square is surrounded by empty two storey empty buildings where cows huddle around using them as wind breaks. We arrange our hire and get an early night in anticipation of the next day.
Next morning we wake up feeling like we’re in a morgue chill box as the powers gone off in the middle of the night. The only reason we flick off the covers is because today we finally get to ride the pow after not making it to the slopes last season (the first time in over 15 yeras!). Things in Georgia don’t happen in a hurry. The chairlifts at nearby Hatsvali don’t open until 10:00 in the morning, if they’re finished smoking their cigarettes in time, and will close from anywhere between 16:30 and 18:00. Having forked over the princely sum of 40GEL (USD$16) for the 8km ride to the resort and back at the end of the day we see that our driver too is going snowboarding for the day, cheeky git. Get paid to ride all day? We need a gig like this!
Hatsvali is a small ski area and being Monday only one chair was running though at just 20GEL (USD$8 each) for a day ticket you can’t complain and we didn’t as the lack of queues, novice skiers and untracked fresh off piste lines meant we could avoid the groomed runs for most of the day. The day consisted of riding through some trees, small amounts of open and fresh snow and Matt trying to show off his mad skills resulting in him being buried in the snow 90% of the time.
As the day rolled on the temperature plummeted so we headed for refuge in the only restaurant/bar which has an invitingly hot wood stove in the middle of the room. Grabbing a post ride celebratory beer we some realise that no matter what country and culture you’re in everyone loves a bit of Euro Trash music on the apres ski scene.
Back in Mestia village we’re famished and reckon we found the best restaurant in town yesterday. Entering Sun-seti the only table is next to the window with the door being opened behind us far too often causing a cold shiver each time. This soon becomes the least of our worries as there is a buzz amongst the diners to the soundtrack of a table of local men singing, creates a welcoming atmosphere. Turns out, after a few sing a longs from the table, that these guys comprise of mostly village elders up the valley who are singing in the polyphonic style, unique to the Svaneti region.
‘Should we get another half litre of wine?’
Homemade white wine is the preferred beverage in these parts of Georgia and it’s being consumed by the bucket load. The locals singing is infectious and soon enough we’re invited over to the elders table as another table of Polish folk is dragged in and the night takes on an elevated sensation of liveliness. With evermore Georgians entering, both young and old, and thus joining in the fray the night escalates into traditional dancing and drinking (told you there’d be many eating and drinking stories) with as many as thirty of us lapping up an exceptional evening of Svanetian fun. Traditional toasts are made by the tamada (or toast master) and we’re all soon drinking wine linked arm in arm with cheers erupting each time the power goes out and is restored (which was often). The food is excellent too, trust us on this one, we ate there three time in as many days.
Waking the following morning to heavy heads accompanied by heavy snowfall our plans of snowboarding again are dashed as we’d been riding yesterday in sunglasses and it’s not possible to hire goggles up here yet. Not to worry, a five kilometre walk in the lung rejuvenating mountain fresh air as we venture to the airport amongst both friendly and sinister canines fills half a day. The airport appears to us to be a possible new take on the old Svan tower and is not particularly loved by the locals as far as we heard.
For lunch we stray off the beaten path of restaurants we’d tried (only one, Sun-seti) and opt for Ushba Cafe. We leave here disappointed with both the tomato and cucumber salad that lacked any flavour along with the tasteless khinkali. Many people we met over the course of the Georgian venture we not really sold on the cuisine though they must have missed some of the prime restaurant that for a relatively low cost can produce some of the finest gastronomy money can buy. That night we returned to Sun-seti feeling we’d done wrong by our old faithful.
If you find yourself up in magical Mestia you don’t need to catch a private taxi back down the valley. As we did you can have your accommodation arrange for the 07:00 marshutka to collect you from your front door so we called it a night with the power back on and our bedroom cozy and warm happy we’d made the effort to visit this stunning part of Georgia.
Thanks for reading and we hope you get a chance to visit this amazing part of the world. You can check out more photos of our time in Georgia on our Flickr page here.
Tips for Mestia
- It’s much quicker to get to here from Tbilisi by marshutka than the overnight train, we took the train to save on accommodation. A shared taxi from Zugdidi, where the train arrives, is 150GEL for the whole car so if you can find a van that fits more people the cost will be cut. We pitched in with four others from the overnight train brining it down to 25GEL (USD$10) each.
- We stayed at MestiaTour Guesthouse. Great family and home cooked food though as they were doing building works the place was cold, even in the room with the heating on all day. We got a great off season deal via Booking.com and host Laura will ensure you have your fill of tea and coffee! Gia and Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 599 60 63 32. The hostel is located at #15 Guladi Japaridze Street.
- Have your accommodation arrange for the marshutka back down the valley to pick you up in the morning. If you are a person of height of at least 5’9’’ then try and get the single seat next to the sliding door, this way you avoid those embarrassing cramping situations of having to reach for your hamstring looking like you’re feeling yourself up whilst you attempt to ram your head through the roof and inevitably end you on some poor old ducks lap.
Tips for skiing and snowboarding in Mestia
- Ski hire – there is only one place in the village (Adrenaline) which at the time we visited had new boots and decent rental boards, though for girls they only had super short boards (140cm max). No matter what they tell you there IS another rental shop at the bottom of the ski lift with a wider range up to 147cm. Board, boots and bindings cost 30GEL for the day.
- Do not forget to bring gloves, goggles, jacket and pants as you CAN NOT rent them up here.
- Getting to the lift at Hatsvali is a right pain in the arse. There is no regular transport to the bottom of the lift so you basically need to hire a private taxi for the day or wait for the 11:00 marshutka, cutting off part of your day on the hill. A taxi should cost you no more than 40GEL. Again the more people the cheaper per person it’s going to be.
- It’s possible to hire a guide for a back-country day tour, unfortunately on our budget this wasn’t possible. Ask at Adrenaline or your guesthouse, everybody knows somebody who’s willing to get paid to ride back-country all day.