Tower-house trails: trekking in Georgia

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Beyond wine, hospitality and Stalin, Georgia conjures up images of mountain majesty. Soaring peaks are fronted by timeless highland tower-house villages that seem to call out for a Game of Thrones film crew. Only 20 years ago, the gem regions of Khevsureti, Tusheti and Svaneti were considered danger zones. Today they are a paradise for hikers.

Hiking from Svaneti in summertime © Maya Karkalicheva / Getty Images

Europe’s most elevated

No, not the Alps; Europe’s highest mountain range is in fact the Greater Caucasus. And while the tallest peaks over 5000m are on the Russian side of the border, Georgia’s preening uplands are not far behind. With minimal bureaucracy (Georgia is visa-free for most nationals) and painless access from the marvellously quirky capital Tbilisi, it’s not surprising that travellers are already flooding into Stepantsminda, a small town still widely known by its old name Kazbegi, where an iconic church punctuates a skyline backed by the dazzling snow-cone of 5033m-high Mt Kazbek, and hiking routes abound.

Judging the possibilities

Kazbegi is just the start. If you’re looking for quick but spectacular hiking opportunities, day walks from Kazbegi or nearby Juta are easy-pleasers. But one of the region’s great appeals is the possibility of multi-day treks between isolated village homestays.

For now, the inspirational idea of a complete TransCaucasian Trail, following the mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian, remains entirely notional due to geopolitical problems – notably border blockages between Georgia and the breakaway regions of South Ossetiaand Abkhazia. But there are several truly classic sections of that route where the paths are fairly well trodden yet the atmosphere still feels other-worldly in its utter remoteness.

Tsminda Sameba Church, Georgia © Fotokon / Shutterstock

The top choices for multi-day treks are in the fabled Svaneti province, or between the elfin Tusheti region and the brooding stone citadel of Shatili. Both of these options supplement stupendous scenery with an extra ‘secret weapon’ – the koshkebi.

Koshkebi towers

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 re-located village houses. Austere, spindly and almost cartoon-like with its minimal windows and machicolated top-knot, this is one of the koshkebi, the medieval tower houses that give many of Georgia’s mountain villages that unique je ne sais quoi.

The remote regions of Tusheti and Svaneti harbour whole villages dominated by gaggles of such towers. Creating truly extraordinary foregrounds for the breath-taking landscapes, they reflect the rough history of the mountain peoples who proudly profess to having never been fully conquered by any outsiders. Given the remoteness of their settlements and the impenetrability of their fortress towers, invaders would simply pass by rather than take the trouble to tame or besiege them.

Quite how old the towers are remains uncertain. Ushguli, a community encompassing 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’.

Ushguli village, Georgia © Andrii Lutsyk / Shutterstock

Svaneti or Tusheti?

Choosing between visiting Svaneti and Tusheti is a key question for most hikers, as essentially there’s no way to link the two areas. Svaneti probably wins overall on the sheer magnificence of the mountainscapes and the unassailed magic of the koshkebi at Ushguli. But, with dozens of guesthouses, Mestia – the Svanetian capital – 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 easy enough to engage a horseman-guide within a day of arriving in Tusheti, so you can have your bags carried and hop on the saddle for those rare watery sections.

Safety and seasons

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 new Sakashvili regime restored order, and these days the main dangers are sheepdogs and a surfeit of hospitality: if you stumble across a tough guy with a Kalashnikov, chances are he merely wants to share a shot or five of chacha (Georgian grappa). In this case the phrase you need to know is ‘Sakartvelos Gaumarjos!’: learning how to toast in Georgian is the one essential preparation before you go.

Mountain village tower houses in Tusheti © PrimePhoto / Shutterstock

Getting there

Since 2013, a new, well 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. There’s even a tiny airport in Mestia complete with a modernist control tower. When they run, Tbilisi-Mestia flights (operated by ServiceAir), are as gloriously spectacular as they are nail-biting, the 12-seater prop-plane bumping about in rising air currents and darting through gaps in the clouds.

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 capital, 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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