WHY GO? Scenic mountain views and medieval villages.
WHERE AND WHEN I WENT: I hiked from Mestia to Ushguli (3 days) and did a couple of day hikes (2 days) in the surrounding areas in September 2016.
PLANNING: There are villages that provide meals and lodging along the way. This, combined with the stunning scenery makes it a very popular trek. Expect to be hiking with quite a few others. There are some beautiful places outside of the villages you can camp if you want a more solitary experience. You can find all sorts of useful information on this trek here.
Information – Caucasus-trekking.com has a ton of useful information to help you plan your treks while in Georgia. Jozef, who runs the site and has a passion for the Caucasus, has written extensively about trekking all throughout Georgia. The site has a ton of useful information including maps, where to go, how to get there, and what to expect. He’s also put together a free “Find a Hiking Buddy” service on his site which allows you to connect with others hiking in Georgia.
Maps – You can buy maps at the Geoland store in Tbilisi for 10 lari. I was also able to find free maps at the tourist center in Mestia.
Getting There – From Tbilisi you can take an overnight train to Zugdidi (8 hours). When you arrive there will be marshuktas going to Mestia (3.5 hours). Or you can take a marshukta directly from Mestia which takes around 9 hours. Mestia also has an airport and flights are reasonably priced however I’ve heard you have to book them pretty far in advance.
Accommodation – There are guesthouses which you can stay at every night that offer dinner and breakfast (~50 lari per night w/ breakfast and dinner as of 2016).
Food – Outside of the guesthouses there are not many opportunities to buy food in the villages. I’d recommend stocking up on anything you want in Tbilisi or Mestia. Keep in mind your choices will be more limited in Mestia. Wine and beer can be bought in the villages.
Water – You will find water in all the villages although I’d recommend filtering it if it’s not bottled to be safe. There were plenty of water sources along the trail.
The trekking directions I refer to below can be found here.
1) It’s definitely worth visiting Tsvirmi. Of all the villages (Mestia, Ushguli, Adishi), Tsvirmi is the least touched by tourism and I found it to be the most enchanting of them all. You can find detailed directions for this route here. I stayed with a family in the first house on the left as you enter the village. There was no sign and we ate with the family who were very friendly. The meals were delicious and generous. This was very different from my experience in the other villages whose guest houses were run much more as businesses. There is also one advertised guest house in the village which you will find a sign for as you walk through the village. I met the owner who spoke English but I didn’t stay there.
2) The free maps in Mestia were good enough although sometimes they seemed slightly inaccurate. I used these along with a map I bought for 10 lari at Geo land in Tsbilisi. I took the road that went through Leli village. It was pretty straightforward and obvious. However it’s worth noting this direction early on as we took a wrong turn here: “follow concrete road for an hour, until you come to the intersection where it sharply bends to the east and dirt road continues in the original direction. If you want to take a cable car, follow concrete road it and it will lead you to the Hatsvali station. If you prefer walking, leave the concrete road and continue on the dirt road in the direction of Ieli village” Otherwise you should end up in Tsvirmi without much trouble. There is a good camping spot next to a creek about 20 minutes before you reach Tsvirmi.
3) For several reasons I’d recommend bringing a tent. The first is that I thought Tsvirmi which is on the first day was the best place to stay to get a feel for local life. The second is because there are some incredibly scenic camping spots along the trail that are just gorgeous. The third is because it opens up some other possibilities (which I discuss below).
4) Day 2 from Tsvirmi to Adishi is unfortunately not very pleasant due to the ski resort being constructed. It is nice once you pass the resort but there’s only an hour or so of trail left after that. I hope they will reroute this section of the trail at some point. If you must go this way (and I’m not aware of another way) I’d strongly suggest hitchhiking up the hill until you reach the sign post signaling where the trail splits off to the right from the main road. You won’t be missing anything but a dusty climb up a hill. If you go right on the trail starting at 2500m there is another campsite around an hour in. I’d recommend continuing on though and camping on the otherside of Adishi with views of the river.
Make note of these directions (we went the wrong way here): “Just follow the road heading north and after two kilometers it will join main road from Mestia to Ushguli at Ughviri pass. Turn right and almost immediately, after 50 meter turn left onto the new road heading to Tetnuldi Ski Resort. You will need to follow it for 9 kilometers and then leave it in the direction of Adishi.”
If instead you turn left on the main road you will find a restaurant within 5 minutes that serves coffee and drinks.
5) Alternative suggestion for Day 2: If you hitchhiked on day 2 you will likely get to Adishi early in the day. If you brought a tent I’d suggest continuing on past Adishi for an hour to the river crossing at Adishi Glacier and camping there. From here you could hike up to the waterfall at the glacier if you wanted which I think would be time better spent than walking past the ski resort. I didn’t do this but I’d estimate it’d take half a day. Camping here also gives you a jumpstart on the next day which can allow you to make a rewarding detour (see below).
6) Day 3 Adishi to Iprali was the highlight of the trek for me. I did the river crossing on foot in the morning in mid September. I’m 6′ and the water did not go higher than the bottom of my knee. The current was not too strong. If you want to take a horse there is likely to be a few Georgians hanging out at the river to help, I don’t think you need to hire one in Adishi. I heard hiring a horse cost about 50 lari. NOTE: I was at the river for an hour in the morning and in that time I noticed the water level had risen by a few inches. It’s possible the river becomes more difficult to cross later in the day so I’d recommend starting early.
7) When you climb the hill on the other side of the river and reach the pass I’d STRONGLY RECOMMEND climbing to Chkhunderi peak (3036m) if the weather permits. It’s around a 3 hour round trip. The climb is challenging but it rewards you with some incredible ridge walking and stunning views. On the day I was there no one else made this climb (all opting to either climb the smaller peak to the left or go immediately down) which was surprising to me considering how incredible the panoramic views were from the top. There is supposed to be a foot path you can take up there down to Iprali but I couldn’t find it.
8) I took a bus from Iprali to Ushguli in the evening, opting not to walk the final section which sounded less than stellar. Although I think the canyon is beautiful I thought this was the right thing to do because you’d be walking on a narrow dirt canyon road with a lot of traffic. Better to save your energy to hike to the glacier in Ushguli in my opinion. You can find places to camp along the river towards the glacier (just keep in mind Ushguli is fairly high up and it’s colder there).
9) My last suggestion, which I wished I could have done would be to consider continuing the hike on from Ushguli to Chvelpi. This would likely be a challenging and long day but just looking at the map I think it would be well worth it. It looked risky alone and I also wasn’t sure how to return to Mestia from there and expected it would likely require hiring a car. If you are in a group and feeling adventurous I’d take a look at it (it’s on the Geoland map for Mestia).