Apprentice Guide Meets Muse: Etseri-Becho, Svaneti


Can one have too much of a good thing if the thing in question is Mt. Ushba? I have certainly been able to put this question to the test over the past week, with three separate occasions to view the magnificent mountain up close or far away from different angles.

The first was in Becho, a village spoiled for viewing choice: You can see Ushba from practically everywhere on the main road through, from bottom to top. IF the mountain is cooperating; if not, it’s simply not there, or its peaks aren’t, shrouded in the cloud which it seems to make around itself on a whim. The #1 rule for Ushba-seekers is: if you see it, shoot it straight away, because you may not get a second chance in your available time-frame! Taking guests on a tour there, we had a few precious seconds of the peak peeking through said clouds. I was ready, knowing full well its caprices, and shot the few frames I needed to make me happy. Due to changes in light angle, season and weather, literally every successful viewing is unique.

The second time was a couple of days later and from much further away, having driven our guests through Mestia to the new Tetnuldi ski resort, between Mulakhi and Ipari on the road to Ushguli. Again, clouds came and went. Ushba has such a presence that if you know it’s supposed to be visible but it isn’t cooperating, you feel like not shooting at all, the disappointment is that crushing, the glimpsed glory that great. When we got to the top of where I could drive, about 3200 m above sea level, I had a few short seconds of the pyramidal peak of nearby Tetnuldi through the clouds, but none at all of Ushba’s twin peaks, which from this angle are side by side, differing by a single meter in height. But I waited long enough for the magic to happen, and again came away satisfied. Patience paid off, which is not always the case here.

Finally, just two days ago, I was asked in advance by another group of our guests to provide a guide for their hike from our house to Becho. I arranged this, but decided to tag along, learn the route myself for future money-making opportunities, and perhaps get more of my muse into the bargain. The guide, a friend and neighbor of ours, took us on a walk which avoided the full sun of the main road up, much of it in forest for shade. Near the top point, we found fresh raspberries and blueberries to cheer us on, as well as rose-hips for future jam; on the other side it was hazelnuts in the steep forest as we descended. My guests, Germans, had a German-speaking Georgian guide with them, and she had a copy of a book in that language describing and picturing all the trees and flowers of the Caucasus. Apparently, it’s also available in English, but sadly not in Georgian! There were some keen botanists in the group, and this resource proved invaluable to them.

At the top, before I could even whip out my camera, I saw Ushba’s peak just dressing itself up in its cloudy veil, too fast for me. I resolved to wait, and we needed a break anyway. This was amply rewarded, as the clouds did indeed part for brief moments. After a while, we ambled down a bit, half an hour later reaching tiny Lake Mazeri, which can double the pleasure by offering the mountain reflected. Would the clouds part again?

Indeed they did, again just for seconds, and I had to ask my paddling friends to scram out of the water to let it settle for photos. They obliged, and I lay down on my front inches from the water’s edge to get as flat a horizon as possible. I had only been at this spot once before, on horseback 17 years ago, and had similar short-lived luck. But it was enough, both times. We turned our backs, walked away into the long-wooded descent towards Becho, and I was able to rejoice in my luck again. It isn’t always so with Ushba.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1900 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

By Tony Hanmer

23 August 2018 19:10