Northwestern Georgia : Svaneti
Svaneti is a high mountain region in Northwestern Georgia, home of the fierce and chivalric Svans. An extraordinary and surreal land of towers, snow, craggy peaks, wine, and dancing; where gold was fleeced, where time has not merely stopped, but rather simply never existed. The entire region is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Knowledge of Georgian is widespread, but the main language spoken here is another offering from the same family, the unwritten Svan language. Russian speakers can probably get by in most villages, where at least one person around should be conversational in the language. A few young people and a few guesthouse owners speak basic English.
Due to the construction of a new road between Zugdidi and Mestia, the largest town in the region, transport times have massively decreased. Night-trains (8 hrs) between Zugdidi and Tbilisi are co-ordinated with early morning (7-8 am) marshrutka departures (15 GEL) from Zugdidi to Mestia, which take a bit over three hours. Booking in advance for the train recommended.
Flights (under 2 hrs) to/from Tbilisi operate 5 times a week at a cost of 75 GEL each way.
There are regular buses (daily, leaving around 7-8 am) to Batumi from Mestia, taking around 5 hours and stopping in Mestia en route.
There is some very basic and inconvenient marshrutka service from town to town, but it's generally easier to hire a taxi to get from point A to B. Hiking from town to town is also very much possible, and considerably more exciting, There is a flagged path from Mestia to Ushguli passing through several villages, the tourist information in Mestia can give additional information (but no map!).
In addition to the breathtaking ancient villages of Svaneti filled with imposing stone watchtowers, there are some spectacular mountain vistas of Europe's highest mountains. Look especially for Mount Ushba and Mount Shkhara.
4 Day Svaneti Trek (Mestia to Ushguli)
There is a red and white flagged trail from Mestia to Ushguli. The tourist office in Mestia offers detailed maps of the route. Guesthouses are available in each of the villages along the route. Route can also be walked in opposite direction, beginning in Ushguli.
The culture of Svaneti is intriguing, offering some of Georgia's most solemn and mysterious dances, and the most complex polyphonic singing in the Caucasus—a tradition dating back over two millenia. There are absolutely no regular performances of any kind, and there are no performance venues besides the open air under the Greater Caucasus, or perhaps in someone's modest home. You are more likely to experience Svan performances in Tbilisi, but a really great guide may set something up with the help of local friends.
The obvious thing to do, in addition to sightseeing, is trekking and mountain climbing in the Greater Caucasus. The Shkhara and Ushba climbs are both technically challenging, and have very dangerous weather. Only experienced mountaineers should attempt the climbs. Mountain inclined dilettantes should instead consider a guided climb of Mount Kazbeg, in Georgia's Kartli region. There are several flagged trails, especially around Mestia, the tourist information in Mestia can give you additional information. The thing to do is basically to just wander out of your guest house, pick a direction that looks promising, and get trekking!
The religious feast of Kvirikoba (28 July, in Kala) is the best time to visit. Since a lot of people are in the area, you can feel pretty safe in traveling here independently (although it may be difficult to find accommodations). And food at feasts in this part of the world is good!
The local wines are actually made of grapes from the Racha region, but any place is a good place to drink them! The best local wines are red, Barakoni and Khvanchkara. The latter was Stalin's favorite, though one may suppose that he was better known for the mass murder of his subjects than his oenophilia.
There are several homestay and guesthouse options in and around Mestia and Ushguli. The Tourist information in Mestia has a list of families in other villages (especially between Mestia and Ushguli) which offer a homestay - speaking Georgian or Russian might be an advantage, but is not necessary. Georgian - or Russian speaking people won't have any problem to find a place to sleep by asking people in the villages for an opportunity. Most homestays ask 30 Lari (2008, about 25 US Dollars) for one night with dinner and breakfast - it may be negotiable. There are guesthouses in Mestia, Zhabeshi, Adishi, Iprali and Ushguli, open during the summer season June until September, catering to eco tourists and hikers.
Never truly subdued by any foolhardy invader, even the Soviets failed to subdue the fierce Svan mountain tribes who inhabit these high mountain fortress-villages. Georgians themselves claim to be a little afraid of the natives here. The security situation changed after M. Saakashvili coming to power. Travelling to Svaneti is not a big safety risk anymore and is possible for backpackers. However, common security precautions shoud be attended.
There are two mountain roads exiting the Svaneti region, one of which is serviced by daily Marshrutkas to Zugdidi for GEL 20. The second road runs from Ushguli directly to Kutaisi but is in very bad shape and requires you arrange a private vehicle. Daily flights are available from Mestia to Tbilisi for GEL 75, weather permitting. For the more adventurous, however, there is a very poor quality mountain road leading east to Oni in the beautiful region of Racha. If you are a hardy trekker, and know what you are doing, you could also head into upper Racha by foot, over mountains. There are routes heading North into Russia's North Caucasus and into Abkhazia, but this should not be attempted. Both borders are formally closed (although enforcement is impossible), and if caught by the Georgians or the Russians, you will find yourself in trouble and alone in a strange and often cruel land.