Walking in Circles: Days 6-8


We were certainly learning flexibility’s importance on our long Svaneti-encircling walk. But we knew that this was how it must be.

A long-term friend joined us by motorbike from Tbilisi between Ipari and Ushguli, camping for the night on the bank of the white-noisy Enguri river, which did nothing to keep me awake. Then, after campfire coffee and cereal for breakfast, we set off again. The backpack was becoming less noticeable, for which I was most glad!

Here came the first reason to shorten our road time between night stays: spending more time with our friend who had come all this way to catch up with us. It became an easy decision to catch offered rides for about half of the 20 or so km to Ushguli in order to accomplish this. Both trips were with the same person, from one of the villages not on our route, Adishi. This much less visited village near Ipari was slowly getting more attention, especially with people who (unlike us) were doing most of their walking on trails instead of roads. The Virus has put paid to that for now, but I hope that things will rebound. I, for one, have never been to Adishi, and must change this.

So we reached Ushguli in time for lunch instead of only for supper, gladly seeing the ongoing road works to widen and eventually cement the way there. What has been done in the last few years from Mestia to within 14 km of the village has much sped up travel and smoothed out thousands of potholes, for which all are grateful.

My former hosts in Ushguli and friends since the early 2000s, the Ratianis, greeted us with the usual delight, undistracted by any other tourists. Dato and Nanuli have their first grandchild, son of their son, who is now serving in government in Mestia; and two of their three girls were also at home, along with Dato’s mother and his sister, who is still director of the first school in Georgia where I taught English.

But the lack of tourism is really hurting the magnificent Villa Lileo, along with all the other great variety of hospitality facilities in Ushguli. Having taken out loans to build or rebuild, everyone is now hoping that visitors will return soon, but safely. There must be a balance here.

Two nights there were another good break. I led Josh up the steep but forest-shaded path to Queen Tamar’s Summer Fortress, so named because it’s much harder to reach in winter. It’s high above Ushguli and offers views of the entire village, with Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain, presiding over it all. This is the source of the Enguri, its glaciers’ meltwater running down all the way to the Black Sea, aided by hundreds of tributaries en-route. Then time to press on, crossing the pass between Upper and Lower Svaneti. We said fond goodbyes; our motorcyclist left towards Mestia, and we in the direction of Lentekhi, which I have never done on foot before.

Soon, new views opened up to us as Ushguli disappeared from view: the whole other side of Svaneti, lower, much less festooned with towers and less tourist-trodden, but no less spectacular in mountain scenery for that. Here, too, we accepted a short ride standing up in the back of a friend’s little truck; he and his son were logging for the winter’s vital firewood. Rain briefly interrupted and was gone. We reached the pass, 2800 m up. Here, we found several shepherd families from Gardabani, far at the other end of Georgia, looking after… 3000 sheep and 200 head of cattle! The grazing must be the best for them to make this arduous annual trip, staying in frame-and-tarpaulin shelters with no electricity or cell phone service. But they do it.

On and on, mostly downhill, seeing yet more road widening works being done. This side of Svaneti, too, will benefit greatly from safer, quicker travel on cemented roads, especially if they are somehow able to be plowed all winter long. Time will tell; there is still at least another year of work before the whole stretch of some tens of km is completed.

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

23 July 2020 17:18