I feel fortunate to have happened upon this hidden gem called Georgia, while it is still a relatively obscure destination. After a couple days spent in the capital city of Tbilisi, I hopped a night train to the Svaneti region of the Caucasus Mountains to go backpacking.
As a history lover, I was blown away by the many stone towers still standing in villages and hamlets throughout the Svaneti region. Built in the 11th century, these towers were apparently used as protection against invaders and feuding neighbors. Given that my experience with Georgian people was one of warmth and welcome to me as a stranger, I was intrigued to learn that their past meant having once lived in fear and distrust of others.
In many ways, the views in the Caucasus Mountains paralleled what I’d found in Switzerland….but at a MUCH more affordable price. My 12-hour train ride to the mountains only cost me roughly $7 USD, my meals were never more than $3-4 (including the tip) and guesthouses only cost about $5-7/night for lodging and breakfast.
By hiking during the month of June, I hit the magic window in the mountains when wildflowers were abundant, the snow had melted, but the summer heat was not yet overpowering.
Bread is the main staple throughout Georgia, and as a carb-lover myself, I was in heaven! I enjoyed delicious homemade breads filled with cheeses, or vegetables or diced potatoes or millet. There was a bakery in Mestia where I could buy a loaf of Barbari bread (reminiscent of Iran), hot from the oven for the equivalent of about 25 cents, USD.
Khachapuri is one of the most popular bread dishes. The boat-shaped loaves can be filled with any combination of meats, cheeses, vegetables, eggs.
As remote and unknown as Georgia had been to me prior to my visit, I was delighted to meet other hikers along the trail. A group of us hailing from Czech Republic, Germany, Israel and Oregon, converged together one late afternoon at a raging river that had no bridge. We joined forces, shared hiking poles, traded sandals, strung ropes, caught backpacks, in order to assist one another safely across.
At night, I camped alone on the trail. One of my favorite nights was spent with this view, where I listened to the glacier calving throughout the night. As thunderous as is the calving of a glacier, it is oddly soothing as well, and I fell asleep that night, feeling grateful for this special lullaby.
Most households in Georgia seemed to contain extended families all living under one roof. In the guesthouse where I stayed in Ushguli, I watched the family matriarch wash her hands at the outdoor spigot (used also for washing clothes), after milking the cow at 5:00 a.m. She was perennially hunched over with a weathered-looking face, giving her the appearance of being much older than her 63 years.
This trail I backpacked through the Caucasus, dipped in and out of small villages and hamlets along the way. While few people in this remote area spoke English, and I speak even less Georgian, we found ways to communicate through miming and pointing. I was often invited to enjoy a cup of chai (tea) on the front porch with a family, as I passed through their village.
I had camped beside a glacial river one night, so that I might cross it first thing in the morning, before it became too high to safely ford. At first light, I packed up my gear, ate a quick breakfast of a power bar, and slipped on my trail runners to cross the turbulent water.
The water was bitter cold and my feet were numb within seconds of hitting that glacial stream. My frozen feet ached afterwards, and I clomped painfully along as though walking on wooden bricks, when I was suddenly rewarded by this WOW moment of dawn breaking behind the glacier.
Because of the beauty of the hiking trails in Georgia, it is feared that the tranquility, affordability and remoteness of this region, will be replaced by becoming another Switzerland. Already there are signs of primitive roads being bulldozed through sections of this country previously reached only by foot or horseback.
I feel grateful that I happened upon this jewel of a place, with its unique culture, its delicious foods and its welcoming peoples — before its charm, traditions and sense of community are lost to tourism.