Back in Tbilisi I strolled the comfortable, attractive streets in search of delicious eats to satiate an endless hunger developed over the past week of hiking. I found my return visit to this delightful city could not have been timed better. Raspberries, nectarines, apricots, and watermelons all seemed to hit peak season in perfect sync and the streets were flooded with mindbogglingly fresh and cheap produce. One vendor, slinging his berries by the bucket load, stopped me in my tracks. I needed a double take to believe my eyes, was I dreaming? For less than two dollars I became the proud owner of more than a kilogram of ruby red, firm yet juicy, raspberries. Add in a carton of ice cream and a nightly harvest festival ensued until my payload was depleted. Again I could feel myself being sucked in by Tbilisi’s magic. If I lingered a little to long, there may be no escape. To break the spell I bought a sleeper train ticket to Zugdidi; from there I would meet a marshrutka driver who would usher me back into the Caucasus.
Arriving at the train station I was expecting great things. I heard rumors that some of the trains were quite new, even possibly having WiFi to make the seven hour journey a comfortable and relaxing cruise across the country. I was looking forward to stretching out in style. A relaxed night before piling back onto the bench seat of a 1993 Ford Transit which waited patiently for my arrival.
The worn shoe equivalent of a carriage coach sat, decrepit looking, on the platform I was assigned. Bile yellow florescent lights flickered as each sardine can cabin came online, the rail bound version of a washed up rock star on two packs a day. It wasn’t necessary to inquire about the status of that WiFi. The train began to board, and a stench of hiking boots filled stagnant air captured in the ventilation free car. The collective of passengers, backpackers mostly, were all heading to the Svaneti region, Georgia’s most famous hiking zone. Dreams of comfort became worries of suffocation. I huddled with the masses around the two subway style flap down windows which offered the only escape from stale air. Sluggishly, with audible pains and groans, the engine began its long journey. You could tell it was hoping this would be the last.
Early the next morning I took my place in the usual gutted and re-purposed people mover. The three hour journey slowly stretched to five as the leisurely driver made his morning rounds. Oblivious to, or simply unconcerned with, his twenty passengers' desires the van stopped regularly for cigarette breaks and tea with the driver’s buddies along the way. Endearing at first, unnerving the third or fourth time, I sighed in relief upon arrival.
The town of Mestia is magnificent. The hub of trekking in Georgia, its small streets buzz with backpacks and the cheerful clicks of trekking poles on concrete. In every direction majestic mountain peaks race to the sky like trees vying for sunlight in a dense grove. Interspersed between Svan watchtowers a plethora of guest houses and small cafes dot the lightly developed streets. It’s a quaint and relaxing place, capitalizing on newly founded ski resorts with a not quite authentic but still charming ski chalet feel.
Before embarking on the four day, three night Mestia to Ushguli trek, the region's headline attraction, I paid a visit to the magnificent Mt. Ushba. Standing over 4,700m (15,400ft), glaciated and profoundly impressive, it’s obvious why it earned the cover shot on Georgia’s Lonely Planet guide book. A long day-hike brought me to the inflection point of Guli Pass; even from 3000m Mt. Ushba peered down upon me like an ant milling about on the ground. The long, steep descent back to town helped me justify the massive calorie bomb khachapuri I demolished for dinner that evening.
The next morning I buckled a light pack to my hips and started off for deeper mountains. Mestia to Ushguli is a fantastic hike. Though shorter and substantially less technical then anything in Tusheti, the hike is every bit as beautiful. It’s a village to village walk so no tent, little food, and limited heavy clothing is necessary as guest houses provide room and board along the way. It’s a four day, non-stop mountain and wild flower feast for the eyes. The well-worn and easy to follow trail is painted with pedals of blue, pink, orange, and yellow. The colors flow like calm ocean water as the mountain air swirls around generating waves of motion among the pedals. Bees flock for the season, embracing this nectar paradise and no Svaneti region breakfast would be complete without fresh amber honey. Day by day I was surprised to walk in relative solitude, given the popularity of the trek, and in the evenings a familiar group of faces would congregate in the small villages. I befriended couples from the Czech Republic and Germany. Each night the six of us would dine on produce from the village and dairy from the guesthouses’ resident cows. Nothing was imported from beyond walking distance and the fresh food nourished tired legs.
After four days of walking the trail’s end was in sight marking the conclusion of my time in the Caucasus Mountains. This incredible range had become my home for the better part of three weeks and I grew attached to the endless views and other-worldly beauty it provided. Climbing into yet another martshrutka back to Mestia I had the somber realization that indeed my time in Georgia was also approaching its finale. As the vehicle approached town I inched closer to a future shrouded by unknowns.