Svaneti, the high Caucasus mountain region in the northwestern corner of Georgia, has a long reputation of fierce independence characterized by the 12th century defensive towers that still dot many of its villages. More recently, Svaneti has been feared as outlaw territory where bandits and escaping terrorists from nearby Abkhazia, Chechnya and Ingushetia took refuge as locals holed up in their homes with guns at the ready.
I tell you, the Svanetians are crazy. Their brains are deficient in oxygen.a Tbilisi resident describing how the high altitudes of Svaneti have affected its people.
To many Georgians, Svaneti still echoes mysterious, beautiful, wild, and dangerous. Our Georgian friends, both anxious and supportive of our desire to explore this mountainous region, suggested taking a tour or finding a local guide to ensure our safety.
Unfortunately, the Georgian tourist infrastructure for the region is minimal and printed material is glossy, lightweight, and tends to point all travelers in the direction of tour operators. For independent budget travelers like us, the $150+/person/day price tag of a typical Svaneti tour was far too steep and didn't include much in the way of hiking or exposure to the people and culture of inner Svaneti, the “real” Svaneti tucked between the bookend touristed villages of Mestia and Ushguli.
Thankfully, a friend in Tbilisi turned us onto the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center, a newly opened non-profit organization whose charter is to assist and expand independent travel to and through Svaneti. The Tourism Center maintains a homestay network, can recommend local trekking guides and is currently in the process of marking hiking trails throughout the region.
Because of this and government efforts to improve safety in the region, travel in Svaneti is now accessible and relatively secure. The few difficulties – from bad roads to numerous drinking opportunities – that you may encounter these days will simply provide humorous color to your Svaneti experience.
Our Jeep, Zugdidi to Mestia
After slowly making our way across Georgia by marshrutka, we picked up a Russian jeep at the Zugdidi bus station on a Sunday morning. Bags of sugar, toys and other goods pile into the jeep while Audrey conducted a photo session with the driver. Ten passengers climbed in for a snug fit and we were on our way.
A male passenger took to us quickly, finding amusement in asking us a battery of questions in Russian. The women passengers, on the other hand, were a bit frosty. One passenger noticed her relatives in the jeep as she boarded and was visibly overjoyed.. When she saw us, however, the delight in her eyes narrowed to a squint of curiosity, skepticism and fear. Georgians had warned us that Svans don't like outsiders; we were beginning to feel the social frost taking grip of our jeep.
Fortunately, a few Russians at a UN checkpoint (near the Abkhazian border) provided a new target for the Svan ire. When questioned, the women in the car openly mocked the soldiers and gave everyone a laugh.
Not long after the checkpoint, a roadside stop appeared. Women decked out in blue eyeliner, short skirts and disco pumps dished out fresh khajapuri and kubdari for the occasional travelers and workers at a nearby dam.
After we downed a few slices of kubdari (meat and onion stuffed bread), the driver invited us to join his table for shots of rachi (a low octane, often homemade, version of vodka). We were relieved to see that he wasn't drinking. Excusing ourselves from a third (or maybe a fourth?) shot, we retreated to another table where the rest of the passengers were eating. The women and their daughters eyed our approach suspiciously, but eventually warmed up to us. Realizing that they weren't about to get rid of us, they offered us their food, agreed to have their photos taken, and even cracked a few smiles. The social frost was starting to melt. When we tried to pay for our food, we learned that one of the fellow passengers had already done so.
How Do We Get Rid of the Husband?
Back in the car, the driver asked me repeatedly about Dan's status: “Your brother, yes? We can find you a good husband in Svaneti.”
I responded: “Husband.”
“Brother?” they asked, just to make sure.
“Husband,” I confirmed. A flurry of conversation in Svan erupted as the group sent glances our way, gesticulated wildly and laughed deliberately in a way that meant the joke would only be private to us.
We could only imagine the conversation went something like this:
“We could get a lot of money for marrying off the girl in Svaneti.”
“Yes, but we need to get rid of the husband first.”
“If we drop him off that cliff over there, his body would float along and wouldn't show up at the UN/Russian checkpoint for four days, meaning it should be unrecognizable by that point.”
Imagined conversations regarding Dan's demise aside, our drive followed the syncopated rhythm of the Turkish music pumping out of the jeep's stereo. Deep gorges, emerging mountain passes and the thick grey rapids of the Enguri River defined an increasingly severe alpine landscape. Our rocky climb into the mountains included stops for water, vomiting, alcohol, cigarettes, oil checks, oil refills, and a hammer exchange with a broken-down Soviet bus.
An Introductory Drink
As if our journey up the mountain from Zugdidi to Mestia wasn't long enough, our driver seizes one last opportunity to draw it out even further. We turn off the road for the last remaining passenger. Mountain-framed pastures dotted with dairy cows give way to ever ascending peaks.
We're invited inside a covered stable area where the driver and the men of the house take a break. The table is covered in large, fresh leek-stuff khajapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) pies. Jugs of curiously pink alcohol are passed around and the tamada (toastmaster) tradition starts. A plethora of toasts to family, friends, the dead, Georgia, and Svaneti take us through a series of refills of fresh, sparkling berry wine. Although we don't know what to make of the whole thing, it's a friendly affair where nothing other than smiles and perhaps a few photo opportunities are expected in return.
As we'll come to find out, this is only the first of many toasts and opportunities for Svans to display their hospitality and open their homes and hearts to us. We quickly learned that the only physical danger we would face would come from Svan hospitality (outrageous amounts of food and drink), rather than from any violence in the region.
Photo Essay: Trekking Across Svaneti
How to Organize Your Own Svaneti Trekking Adventure
- How to get there: From Tbilisi there is a marshrutka from Didube station leaving at around 6 AM (get there early though). Cost is 25 lari per person and takes around 12 hours. From Zugdidi, jeeps depart from the bus station near the Svan tower. Arrive at around 7 AM and then wait until the jeep is full to depart. Cost varies between 15-20 lari per person, depending upon the size of the jeep. Normally the trip takes 5 hours, but ours took close to 8 hours with all the khajapuri and wine/vodka stops.
- Where to stay in Mestia: There is a network of homestays in Mestia and it's not as difficult as it sounds to find a place to stay. We stayed with Msevinan (+995 99 14 97 93). Tsiouri is also well known and down the street (+995 99 56 93 58). Kakha (+995 55 49 51 18) and Koba (+995 98 43 27 31), the guys who run the guesthouse at the Svan Tower (next to the bus station) in Zugdidi, have a network of relatives throughout Svaneti. The Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Centre also has a network of families (35 Lari/person, including all meals). Even if you don't have a contact in advance, the driver in Zugdidi (or from Tbilisi) could probably find you a place to stay easily – everyone knows everyone.
- Where to eat: Homestays normally provide breakfast, lunch and dinner. You will never be hungry and depending upon the family, there may be large amounts of wine and vodka thrown in as well.
- Where to stay in Zugdidi: Kakha and Koba have three rooms for tourists near the bus station (look for the Swan Tower) – 15 Lari/person. Hotel Zugdidi has comfortable rooms with hot water for 40 Lari/double room.
- What to do in Svaneti: Trekking is the big attraction here. The Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Centre can provide information on where to go and arrange guides (40-50 Lari/day), if necessary. The Mestia museum (10 Lari) is interesting with 1000 year old books and religious icons. The Ushguli museum (10 Lari) is disappointing and well worth skipping.
14 thoughts on “Svaneti: Why and How To Go”
Thats one of the most beautiful places in the Worldi 🙂
Thank you for such a good article 🙂
We agree that Svaneti is a beautiful place, not just for its landscape but for its people! We hope to explore more of Svaneti some day!
Hello, I’m Stefan Stanimirov, 58 years old pulmonary physician from Bulgaria in Eastern Europe. Going to Svaneti is something I would really love to do during this lifetime but I know it’s not an easy trip to take. Will be grateful for more detailed information about your experience in Svaneti.
Great to hear that you are interested in visiting Svaneti. If you are in good shape then it shouldn’t be a problem for you. Since our visit to Svaneti several years ago the roads have gotten better, so it is only a 3-4 hour jeep/bus journey from Zugdidi to Mestia. You can get to Zugdidi by overnight train or by bus from Tbilisi. I also hear that there are more hotels there, and you can find trekking guides or companies there if you want to do a trek. If you have specific questions, just let me know!
Hello,it is easy to find a car for 7 person from media to ushguli.how much.
It should be pretty easy to arrange a car and driver from Mestia. Check with the tourist information office there or at the hotel where you’re staying in Mestia to see if they can organize it for you.
Enjoy your trip!
I tell you, the Svanetians are crazy. Their brains are deficient in oxygen
i wanÂ´t to see this georgian who told this words to cut his head off
yesterday some new modern buildings opened in Mestia, it would be interesting to express your ideas about location of new modern buildings near to the ancient towers. and what about skiing in Svaneti? do you consider it right place for it?
Love this your blog. My husband and I are looking to visit Georgia end of summer this year and are struggling to find info on how to trek in Svaneti. We would prefer to do this trip on our own rather than go with a tour operators.
How long was your trek and would you recommend your guide?
Our trek was approximately 65km spread over 3.5 days. There were sections of it that had steep inclines, but it was moderately difficult overall. I would recommend our guide (Avgan) as he was knowledgeable of the route and region. However, he didn’t speak any English (only Russian, Georgian and Svan) if that’s an issue for you. I’m not sure if he’s still working with the Svaneti Tourism Center but you can always check. They probably have a list of other guides if he isn’t.
Good luck and enjoy your trip!
I am considering spending a week in Svaneti area in Oktober. And also some ‘light’ trekking. Do you have any suggestions for that period and/or are there any good advices on things to consider?
For some light trekking you might want to consider day hikes from Mestia and/or Ushguli (and take a vehicle between the two). The tourism office there should be able to provide you with maps of trekking routes in the area. I don’t believe the roads will be snow-filled yet at that time, but weather in high altitudes like this can be temperamental so be sure you have lots of layers for warmth and rain gear.
Enjoy your trip!
I was actually researching on how to get to Svaneti via land and came across your blog. My cousins and I are planning a 4-day breather to Svaneti mid March 2018. You’re article is a delight for me since it answered all my question on the travel time and fare.
I have booked my AirBnB on Mestia which says 10mins away from the hike zone, in line with this, would you suggest on booking 3 full day of tour or we can do 1 day tour and the remaining 2 days to hike around by ourselves? Is 4 days enough for Svaneti? Sorry got lots of questions, am pretty much excited upon reading your article. 🙂
Great to hear that you’re headed to Svaneti in March and that our article was useful. The time might be a bit faster now as the road has been improved since we traveled there.
One thing to ask at your AirBnb is what trails will be open at that time or cleared of snow. We heard that many of the trekking routes really start opening up in May, but there will likely be some open routes near Mestia. As I understand, you plan to spend the whole time based in Mestia vs. trekking and spending the nights in different villages along the way. If this is the case then I think that hiring a guide for the first day will help to give you an orientation and see how well-marked the route are around Mestia. Then, you can determine whether you think you can manage on your own or whether you’d feel more comfortable with a guide.
Have a great trip!