The truth about hiking in Georgia – Mestia to Ushguli

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For several years now I have wanted to visit Republic of Georgia. During my other travels people have told me incredible stories about how nice and welcoming the Georgian people are so I wanted to experience that myself, hoping in that they would expire me and make me more positive and open as well. What I discovered was not exactly what I expected, but more about that soon….

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I also could not wait to explore the Caucasian mountains.I read somewhere that Caucasian mountains are like Swiss mountains, but a lot more remote, wild and untouched. This kind of comparison is rises high expectations and I was not disappointed in the beauty of the mountains in Svaneti. The valleys were as green as the Swiss alps and in the horizon you could see the white peaks sparking. I saw both Mt. Ushba, Laila and Tetnuldi.

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Famous Mt. Ushba – one of the most difficult climbs in Caucasus

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Everywhere I looked I could see peaks that I was immediately tempted to climb and in the evening I found myself trying to figure out where one could hike in order to summit them. In the valleys the rivers were filled with ice-cold water from the glaciers and the waterfalls were sliding down from the sides of the green mountains. The main difference from the swiss alps are the paths. The paths in Svaneti are wild, and quite often you find yourself fighting through long grass and pushes. The terrain is less rocky and often wet and muddy.

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Our first guesthouse, this one had an outside toilet and shower – Zahbeshi village

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Oh and we made some friends along the way, this dog was always following the first hiker so when a couple passed us, he abandoned us.
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This bridge was washed away in 2017, we were glad to see that it was rebuilt in 2018!

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Streets of Adishi

It truly is wild, and then when you are approaching one of the old Svaneti mountain villages you feel like going back in time. It is inspiring to see how simple life these people live in these villages. Electricity comes and goes, food is made on fire stove. The daily tasks contain men making firewood, women cooking, children chaining the cows to the stables with dogs and a stick. When there is free time children play outside and not with their phones og tablets. Small girls and boys ride horses instead of bicycles as it was the most natural way of getting around. The older children look after the younger ones, and often more than one generations and families live together. It was nice to experience this time travel.

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The wild “streets” of Svanetian villages
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  The view of our second Guesthouse – Adishi village. This is a quite small village, but we had luck with out guesthouse, they were quite nice and the food was really good…

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Svaneti and Georgian hospitality

Sadly the Svaneti people did not seem to be friendly or welcoming at all. Maybe they were for 10 -15 years ago?? Because there must be something in these stories I have heard from other travelers? Or was I really that unlucky with my experience? I do not think so, I think the tourism has opened the eyes of Svaneti people to money but money and friendship do not mix well together. During my four-day hike we stayed overnight in five different guest houses and not ONCE was I asked where we were from. Mostly our host did not even try to communicate with us (with one exception in the travel in house in Mestia, but I think here the owner is Russian and not Georgian). In most cases we spent hours in their homes without even knowing the name of our host or nothing else about the family we stayed with 😦 I know it’s hard to communicate when you don’t speak the language, but Chinese people were always very nice to me…Anyways, do not expect questions like “Did you sleep well?”, or “Where do you head today?” .. I don’t know.. but I did not feel welcome at all…In some cases they were actually rude. In a restaurant in Mestia, we waited for our food over an hour, so then I asked them if they forgot our order. The waiter, simply said that he did not know, and that everyone wait more than an hour for their food so I should just be patient. Perhaps Svaneti is not where the Georgian Hospitality Reputation comes from?  

Mestia to Ushguli – Some advice

Moving on to the hiking. I did a lot of research about possible hikes in the Svaneti area before flying down there. I wanted to climb some nice peaks and from the pictures I had seen it seemed that the possibilities should be endless, but the information online (and in Mestia or Tbilisi) is very limited when it comes to climbing peaks. Unless you want to climb one of the famous peaks like Kazpeki that is. If anyone knows a good research about hiking other 4000m mountains in Svaneti please share!!

In general to me hiking in Svaneti seemed a little more developed than hiking in China (where hiking trails were not marked at all or you are forced to hike stairs”) but here too there were many peaks without names and basically only couple of semi marked hiking trails. And as there are no mountain huts (Guest houses are not mountain huts, they are houses in small mountain villages) you really need to bring a tent and be self-sufficient if you want to explore the peaks and get away from the few established trails filled with other hikers. Another option would be to hire a local mountain guide, as there seem to be mountain guides out there who advertise hikes to mountains that are off the beaten path.

www.caucasus-trekking.com has a very good description of the hike and the gpx track. The site basically contains all you need to know in order to do the hike, so I will not repeat the directions here, but I think the following points could be useful if you want to do the hike:

  • The hike is doable in three days, if you combine the first and second day to one day.
  • Download the gpx track in advance there is no internet in the villages.
  • I would also say that I found the trail from Zhabeshi – Adishi the pettiest, but Adishi – Iprali was also very beautiful.
  • If you are running low on time try to drop the last part of the trail Iprali – Ushguli and get a taxi from Iprali to Mestia. This part was my least favorite one.
  • About the river crossing between Adishi and Iprali . The river is could, and when I say could I mean could as in that you can’t feel your toes for five minutes afterwards. Do not try to cross the river barefoot or in flip flops. I saw that going wrong when I was there. Bar foot takes too much time. I did it with trainers, tried to be fast and I still could not feel my toes afterwards. Also, I saw a guy miss his flip flops, so that did not work well either. Oh and use walking poles or at least try to find some stick the day before so that you can use it for balance.. you really want to be fast when crossing that river. Of Course you can take a horse, that is the most comfortable way, but 20 Lari is quite expensive for 20 meters, if you ask me..
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this poor girl had hard time crossing the river barefoot..
  • It is fine to drink the tap water in the guesthouses. You do not need to buy bottled water.
  • The paths in the forest tend to get really muddy so I would advise to hike in proper hiking shoes, but I saw a lot of people doing it in sneakers and they survived 😉
  • Bring enough cash with you, plus a little extra. We paid 50 lari per night per person (including dinner and breakfast), but prices have increased a lot during the last years and I think they will continue to do so.
  • Don’t expect very friendly hosts in the guest houses. You might be lucky, but it is better to manage your expectations.
  • You will not be walking alone, this trail is very popular (at least in high season) and you will at times walk in queue, unless you bring your own tent and can start before everybody else.

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    As you can see there were a lot of us crossing the river
  • The days are not too long, we were mostly in the guesthouses around 14:00 -15:00 so take your time to enjoy the views.
  • Buy enough lunch from 4 days before you start (You can get bread and sausages in Mestia), the only thing you can buy in the villages is some chocolate, beer and coke. Some guest houses provide lunch packages (we only got one from one) but they are often way too small to cover the whole day.

All in all I really liked the nature in Svaneti and the pictures on this blog are just a fraction of my camera roll. It really was beautiful. I would like to go back, but that would require more planning, and more camping and equipment. All the villages are building new guest houses/ hotels so I expect there to be even more tourist in the years to come. Hopefully there will be more trails too and mountain huts which would ease the hikes to the peaks. The potential is there, but as there is not much culture for hiking, this may take time.

 

Hiking my first Volcano – La Malinche 4440 m

La Malinche mountain is an inactive volcano (dormant for the last 3,100 years) located in Tlaxcala and Puebla states, in Mexico. Officially, its summit reaches 4,461 metres (14,636 ft) above sea level, though it is generally considered to be closer to 4,440 metres. It is the sixth-highest in Mexico.

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Here you see the “peak” before the real peak

Traveling to Mexico we did not plan to do any hiking actually, but we should have known ourselves better by now, because off course we could not resist :D. When travelling for two months it is really limited what you can bring so the only equipment we had with us were our hiking boots, one layer of wool and a rain/wind jacket. Considering this to be to little for a 4000m summit, the day before the hike we were in Mexico City and tried to find some warm clothes for the hike. We were not sure how could it could get on 4000m in Mexico, but decided that we should at least have an extra warm sweater. We found the cheapest on sale sweaters, bought a lot of sandwiches, 3,5 L of water and two small chocolates from the Oxxo store and hoped that would get us to the top of La Malinche. As it turned out too little food or clothes was not the problem on this hike.

HOW TO GET THERE:

We took a direct bus from TAPO in Mexico city to Apizaco, wich costs about 135 pesos. From Apizaco we found a collectivo around the Elektra shop, from the corner of Av. Hidalgo and Av. Serdan. You will probably need to ask around as there are tens of different collectivos there, but you are looking for the one written Teacalco or San José Teacalco on. They are slow because the stop in all kind of villages, and the price asked was 60 pesos per person. The last collectivo leaves around 4:30PM the first leaves at 8:20 AM. The collectivo will stop right in front of the Centro Vacacional, so you will not have to do any additional walking. The last busses back to either Puebla or Apizaco leave around 5:00PM. The bus to Puebla costs us 40 pesos each, and took about 2 hours.

CAMPING:

So luckily there is a quite fancy resort just bellow La Malinche, where the trail starts called “Centro Vacacional Malintzin”. It is an ideal location to acclimatize and start an ascent of the volcano as it lies on 3200m. It has a restaurant and a gift shop. Outside the resort, there is also a small kiosk and a little cheaper restaurant. It has very comfortable cabins and camping area. All of the huts have hot showers, TV, fridge, kitchen, fireplace (take your wood with you or buy it at the entrance) and come with either 4 or 6 beds. You can’t just buy one bed, so we were two people renting a 6 persons cabin, which was 960 pesos per night. It was actually cheaper to rent the 6 person cabin than the 4 person cabin, because the 4 person cabins had a kitchen, and were hence more expensive. You can’t book online, so you have to call the center directly and make your reservation. The very nice lady told us that for reservations they normally want a deposit online, but that only works with mexican cards so she let us book over the phone without paying the deposit. For booking over phone call: +521 554822716699 they also have a webpage in spanish.
If you don’t like using the resort you can camp at no fee just outside the “Centro Vacacional” in the forest. There are lots of flat places around, even some accessible by car. Alternatively take your gear and walk about two hours up the trail towards the La Malinche. There are campsites around timberline. For your next day climb to the Malinche you can hide your backpack somewhere in the woods.

THE HIKE ITSELF:

The hiking trail to the summit begins just between the restaurant and the small kiosk outside of the gate of the resort.

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Beginning of the trail

The forest trail is a shortcut over the concrete road that once was open for public, but is now closed of with a gate. After crossing the road several times, the trail leads into a conifer section at around 3,400 meters. Even though the hike might seem like a walk in the park to begin with, it fast turns into a real challenge if you have not acclimatized. We saw hikers throwing up before they reached the tree line, so you have to keep in mind at 4000 m you will get height sickness if you have not acclimatized. From the tree line, you can see the “false” summit for the first time. After that you have to choose either to take a very steep grassland section on right or a very steep gravel and sand path on the left.

 

 

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Picture taken from www.summitpost.org

We did the sand path (in red on the picture). It really was heavy, because for every step you were sliding one step back and it felt like we were not making any progress. I guess the path to the right, over the grass would have been a wiser choice. The ridge starts at 4,200 metres and leads to the summit, which is just behind the false summit. The last 100-or-so metres involve a bit of scrambling.

I read that is often cold and very windy above the tree line, but we were lucky and had quite comfortable conditions. Never the less, I used all my clothes – one  layer of wool, one warm sweater and wind pants + jacket, so don’t come in t-shirt. I have also read that  crampons and an ice axe are necessary whenever it has snowed recently – which typically happens a few times each year. Therefore when you book your cabin with the Centro Vacacional, be sure to ask if there is snow or not.

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The ascent is challenging but not technical. Fit hikers can reach the summit from the resort area in 4 hours, but it is best to plan for 5–6 hours with breaks and it also depends on if you have acclimatized or not. We used 5 hours, but were hiking very slow. My stomach was acting up on the mexican food as it had for several days, and so I was really not in shape that day. I could not really get any nutrition to my body and was only drinking water and eating small pieces of chocolate. To be honest, I am still not sure how I made it to the peak. especially on the way down I was astonished that I had walked all the way up! I only remember focusing on the next steps and trying to keep the negative thoughts out of my mind, thinking that I will soon feel better. Elias was also very supportive and I am sure I would not have made it to the peak without him encouraging me all the way. I think this is the hardest hike I have done sofar?! I know 1,200 hm climb is not much, but that day it was hard, really hard, both mentally and physically.

 

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The peak was really quite crowded. This is a very popular hike in the area so don’t be afraid, you will not be hiking alone, and you will not get lost. A map is really not necessary as you just follow the path and the crowd of people.

After a small break on the peak we started the descent. I was feeling much better now so we used less than 2 hours down. My advise is to take the sandy (red) path down, as hiking downhill in the sand it is really nice and easy for the knees.

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me starting to feel better, and even managed to smile 🙂

 

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The view from the peak

 

The best time to climb is the dry season is November through March, May through September tends to be wet with rain and snow. The “Centro Vacacional” is open all year round, so you can go there anytime if the weather is good. No permits are required to climb. There is no entry fee or parking fee if you park outside the “Centro Vacacional”. This is also true for camping.

 

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Glad I made it !