Beyond wine, hospitality and Stalin, Georgia conjures up images of majestic mountains. Soaring peaks are fronted by timeless highland tower-house villages. Only 20 years ago, the stunning regions of Khevsureti, Tusheti and Svaneti were considered danger zones. Today they are a paradise for hikers.
Europe’s highest mountain range is not the Alps – it is, in fact, the Greater Caucasus. And while the tallest peaks over 5000m are on the Russian side of the border, Georgia’s highlands are not far behind.
Georgia is visa-free for citizens of most countries (including members of the EU, the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand) and roads up into the mountains from its marvellously quirky capital Tbilisi are getting better.
It's not surprising that more travellers are discovering Stepantsminda, a small town still often called by its old name Kazbegi, where an iconic church punctuates a skyline backed by the dazzling 5033m-high Mt Kazbek, and hiking routes abound. Kazbegi is just the start. If you’re looking for quick but spectacular hiking opportunities, day walks from Kazbegi or nearby Juta are good options.
One of the region’s great appeals, though, is the possibility of multiday treks between isolated village homestays. Now that geopolitical problems between Georgia and its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have calmed down, the inspirational idea of a complete TransCaucasian Trail, following the mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas, has come to life. Several hundred kilometres of the trail have already been built by teams of volunteers, and more routes through the mountains are still being completed. There are several truly classic sections of this route where the paths are fairly well trodden, yet the atmosphere still feels other-worldly in its utter remoteness.
The top choices for multiday treks are in the spectacular Svaneti province, or between the equally beautiful Tusheti region and the brooding stone citadel of Shatili. Both of these options supplement stupendous scenery with an extra ‘secret weapon’ – the koshkebi.
At Tbilisi’s excellent Open Air Museum of Ethnology, you have the chance to see a gently tapered stone tower high on the hillside overlooking the rest of the site’s relocated village houses. Austere, spindly and almost cartoon-like with its minimal windows and machicolated top-knot, this is one of the koshkebi, the tower houses that give many of Georgia’s mountain villages their unique look.
The remote regions of Tusheti and Svaneti both have many villages dominated by these koshkebi towers. Creating extraordinary foregrounds for the breathtaking landscapes, they reflect the rough history of the mountain peoples, who are fiercely proud of never having been conquered by any outsiders. Given the remoteness of their settlements and the impenetrability of their fortresses, invaders would pass by rather than take the trouble to tame or besiege them.
Quite how old the towers are remains uncertain. Ushguli, a community of four villages in Georgia's Upper Svaneti region, is listed as a World Heritage Site, yet even Unesco refrained from wagering the age of their defensive structures, simply describing them as having origins that "go back to prehistory".
Choosing between Svaneti and Tusheti
Choosing between Svaneti and Tusheti is a key question for most hikers, as the long and bone-rattling journey between the two areas makes it extremely difficult to visit both. Svaneti probably wins overall, for the sheer magnificence of the mountainscapes and the magic of the koshkebi at Ushguli. But, with dozens of guesthouses, Mestia – the main town in Svaneti – feels bigger and more 'discovered' than some visitors expect.
Although there’s a narrow seasonal window for visiting Tusheti, there’s an immense satisfaction for hikers who walk from village to tower-house village, with opportunities to sleep in timeless stone houses in Dartlo, Girevi and Ardoti during a five-day crossing to Shatili via the Atsunta pass. For one night in the middle section a tent is required and there are a couple of river crossings that get a bit hair-raising early in the season. But it's usually possible to find a guide with a horse upon arriving in Tusheti, so you can have your bags carried and hop onto the saddle for those rare watery sections.
Safety during your trek
In the 1990s there were good reasons to think twice about visiting Georgia’s high mountain regions. Svaneti was infamous for kidnappings; the historic citadel of Shatili in Khevsureti was said to be the haunt of ruthless Chechen separatists who had been driven out of Russia, and the state of road access to the highlands was atrocious.
Things changed radically after 2004, as the government of the new president Mikheil Saakashvili restored order. These days the main dangers are unpredictable mountain cows and a surfeit of hospitality: if you are stopped by a huge man carrying a Kalashnikov, the chances are he will offer you a glass or five of chacha (a sort of Georgian grappa made from the skins of grapes discarded during wine-making). In this case the phrase you need to know is Sakartvelos Gaumarjos! (Here's to Georgia!): learning how to toast in Georgian is an essential bit of preparation before you go.
Since 2013 a new, asphalted road has allowed easy access to Mestia, and the once hideously rutted track leading onwards to Ushguli has been under steady improvement since then.
For Khevsureti and Tusheti, a key point to bear in mind is that both regions become entirely cut off by snow for much of the year. Amazingly, many hardy citizens in Shatili do stay in their blizzard-bound homes year round, but the entire population of Tusheti, including its Tolkienesque little town, Omalo, relocate by the end of September to the Kakheti lowlands, only returning in May or June. When the road is open, there are a couple of weekly shared jeeps to Shatili, but finding a ride out isn’t hard as long as you’re prepared to charter. The same goes for the winding, unpaved lane to Omalo, with chartered 4WDs easy to arrange from Telavi or Alvani.
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Article first published in August 2017, and last updated by Jonathan Campion in March 2020.