Walking in Circles, 1: Svaneti


So, recently my wife and I were going down to Zugdidi for our twice-monthly stock-up run for the shop. We left right as the curfew hour ended, 6 am, to get to the big Jibe (Pocket) cash & carry store for its opening, when you still had to take a number to get in.

It took us more than an hour to meet another car at all on the road down through Svaneti. Partly because the goods distribution vehicles from Zugdidi going up were also bound by the curfew, and hadn’t had time to get this far. But also partly just because tourism just isn’t happening now, and neither is public transport.

I ended up thinking to myself, what a great time to walk around Svaneti.

The last time I did any of this was 13 years ago, when I was 40 and in better shape. A young friend and I walked from Etseri to Ushguli and back, on the roads, with our luggage on a horse. We stayed in the homes of friends each night except one night in tents, and walked 20-28 km per day, with only a short bit of rain on one day. It was a wonderful trip.

This time I want to circle all of Svaneti, with more off-road: Etseri to Ushguli via the Guli Pass with its spectacular look in the face of mighty Ushba. Down to Lentekhi in Lower Svaneti, to Tskhaltubo, then through Samegrelo back roads to Jvari, and back up home. It’s taken a few iterations of trip version to settle on this one, which is still subject to change. My good friend Jan Richard Baerug, who runs the Grand Hotel Ushba in upper Becho, did the trip a few years ago both on foot and on skis, with his friend Shako Margiani, and they wrote it all up in the magnificent coffee table book Europe’s Unknown Fairytale Land. Now it’s my turn.

Another young friend will join me. He’s a fit, fully trained Eagle Scout, the highest level of outdoor experience, which inspires a lot of confidence. He has also contributed a lot of time to helping us with all sorts of renovation and building jobs around our house, such as making me a workbench in the garage at last. Just the man for the job. We’ll camp all the way this time, to avoid staying in people’s homes; light backpacks, all food dried, filter bottles for water along the way. I’ll probably lug my big camera and all 3 lenses, just because I have nothing else which can shoot photos of the necessary quality and can’t imagine missing the opportunities.

This is something which has been brewing in me for many years, finishing this great circle of about 400 km, seeing most of the province which has been my chosen home since that first walk of 2007. I admit to a great excitement in getting out into the wild, taking some new trails, getting up close and personal with Mt. Ushba and others, and being reminded why Svaneti is such a glorious place in the world. No doubt there will be many challenges en route, hopefully the worst of which will be a bit of weather; though we will have to hang our food high up just in case bears get interested in it. At least we’ll be going in the drier season, when snow and rain are less likely.

For now, further planning, which I’ll document here as we gear up. Some of the things I bought way back in 1989 for a planned multi-year bike trip around the world will still serve, such as my tent. We’ll add the newest, lightest things we can, and stay in touch with family and friends all over the world by cell phone and internet as we go. We’ll both shoot enough video, I hope, to make a film of the event too.

See you from there!

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer and photographer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri: www.facebook.com/hanmer.house.svaneti

By Tony Hanmer


28 May 2020 21:04