Shanghai to Svaneti

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The mountain views from Georgian cafes are “Georgeous.”

Last summer, while on a two month overland trip from Shanghai to the Caspian Sea along the old Silk Road, I made a stopover in Urumqi. It’s a weird Han colony in the far northwest of China in the midst of Muslim nomads who have been under Chinese occupation off and on for centuries. Urumqi is emerging as a Central Asian transit hub, the main reason I have now visited this provincial capital three times. The first time was by rail, squeezing the narrow strip between the Gobi Desert and Tibet; the second on my way from the Azeri port of Baku back to Shanghai by air; and now returning to the Caucusus.

A China Southern Airlines attendant tells me I need to wait in a room in the domestic arrivals terminal for four hours, and then she will tell me how to get to international departures for my connection to Tbilisi, Georgia. But a year and a half in the Middle Kingdom has taught me that most officials are full of shit, and I haven’t eaten in 20 hours, so I walk outside acting like I know where I’m going. That, coupled with being white, lets me get to KFC and wait there with a greasy set of food and something-that-might-or-might-not-be-coffee until it’s time to ask around about where the flight to Tbilisi is boarding.

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Western tourist mode.

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This is a Tbilisi metro map. I can’t read Georgian. 

It cost $23 for an airport hotel plus a driver holding my name on a sign at arrivals, ready to take me to my room, and 45 minutes after stepping off the plane I’m in bed. In the morning I walk to the highway, break some larger bills in a roadside store, and flag the first bus heading towards downtown Tbilisi.

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Georgia is known for having the best food in the former Soviet Union, and Georgian restaurants are popular throughout the old republics. Being so close to the Silk Road, Georgia has had over a thousand years to experiment with various spices from the East. The local cuisine is heavy on walnuts, spices, stews, cheese, and lamb. A meal in a high quality restaurant in downtown Tbilisi, like above, totals about $8.

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Georgia has been producing wine for over 8000 years, and this is supposedly where the practice began. At the suggestion of a friend, I tried and became addicted to Saperavi. Saperavi wines are Georgia’s most famous alcoholic export, and popular in Eastern Europe. They’re made from a type of grape that grows in the higher elevation mountains of Georgia, and make a sour red wine. There are wine bars everywhere in Tbilisi, and a glass at a nice joint will cost about $3.30 each. 

Getting a SIM card in Tbilisi set me back only about $5 for 5 GB, and took around five minutes to set up in a telecoms shop near my hostel. Taxis are dirt cheap, about $1.30 for a 15 minute ride, but I ended up taking buses or the metro everywhere.

Stalin was born in Gori, a 45 minute van ride from Tbilisi. I took a marshrutka, Russian for large van, to a bizarre museum and shrine that venerates him and somehow neglects to mention all the atrocities he committed. It was more than a little off putting to see him showcased as the “local boy who went on to do great things.”

Hiking in Svaneti

One of the main draws to Georgia is the mountain hiking, and one of the best places to do that is in Upper Svaneti in the Greater Caucusus along the Russian border. Although Georgia is about half the size of my home state of Ohio, or roughly the same size of the Republic of Ireland, the mountains can make travel long.

I hopped on a night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, a town in the northwest. There were many other backpackers on that route, and a comfortable bed cost around $7 for the eight hour ride. Upon arrival early in the morning at Zugdidi, there were numerous marshrutka waiting to ferry passengers four hours along windy roads up to Mestia (elevation 1500m/4920ft) in the mountains.

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Walking along the streets of Mestia towards the mountains and hiking trails. Mestia’s claim to fame is being the highest year round inhabited settlement in “Europe” (most Europeans I met were adamant Georgia is not Europe). The Caucusus are in this weird place of not quite Europe, not quite Asia.

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I took this ski lift up the mountain to start my hike, and it was absolutely terrifying. I held onto my backpack while suspended high above the ground, and attendants yelled in Georgian while I tried to scramble off at the end.

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This is the ski lift I took up one of the mountains. There are many trails in the area around Mestia, with options for day hikes or overnight treks.

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A cafe at the top of the ski lift. I got a latte and enjoyed the view before setting off on a three night hike.

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Most people took a ski lift to the top and walked around for a few hours, enjoying the cafe before and after the hike. You could also keep walking as far as you wanted through various villages, which offered homestays for about $17 a night including dinner and breakfast. I camped each night in my tent.

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The trail started off along a two track road.

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I had paper maps and GPS tracks on my phone. Even without cell service, my phone could show me where I was on a map accurate up to about 10 meters.

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Views along the first few hours of the first day.

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Clear skies and green are not things I see much in Shanghai, whose unofficial population is pushing 35 million.

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Skirting the edges of mountains.

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Every few hours I’d walk through a village. You could get meals and a bed for the night in the villages.

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Walking through a village.

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Water in a village trough. You can actually drink the tap water in Georgia, it’s known throughout the former USSR for having clean water.

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I walked through this weird semi abandoned ski station, with dark storm clouds forming above me. Looking at the map, I was concerned about finding a place to camp after this, and although I was at 2200m/7200ft and had spend the previous night at 770m/2230ft I decided it was safest to sleep here.

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I walked above the ski station along some random road, ran up into the bushes where I thought there would be a clearing, and found a great tent site. 

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I was awoken at 2am by flashing lights and the booming of thunder, so I assumed the lightning crouch position so I wouldn’t die of electrocution in case I got struck. Me and my things stayed dry, and it was definitely not my first time in a high elevation thunderstorm but still was freaky.

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Passing through another village. I would see a few hikers each day at the height of the busy season. Because I camped each night and didn’t stay in villages, my walking didn’t really ever match up with others’. Georgian villages and towns often have these characteristic watch towers seen above.

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A bridge in Svaneti, Georgia.

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This trail was very easy to follow.

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Though it did involve some stream crossings!

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Heading inexorably onwards.

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Rise with the sun, go to sleep at dusk.

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A Georgian village early in the morning.

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A homestay sign in Hebrew, which says “welcome.” In South America, Central Asia, and Georgia I’d see signs in Hebrew from Israeli backpackers recommending various restaurants and hotels.

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I took this trail too fast and didn’t allow enough time to acclimate. But I ended up being fine and was just short of breath on the incredibly steep climbs. Here’s where I spent my final night of the hike at 2380m/7800ft. A German family later came up and joined me. There are cheap flights from continental Europe, and increasingly budget flights from Germany and France direct to the central Georgian city of Kutaisi. The vast majority of travelers I met were from Germany, France, and Israel. I didn’t meet a single other American or Canadian on my trip.

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Hiking amidst the clouds on my last day. It was cold and wet, but felt great to be back on trail.

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My hike ended in a village on an unpaved road, population around 25. A man who had an uncanny resemblance to my late grandfather put me up in a room in his home for $17, and this was the dinner he provided (my real grandfather would never have been able to cook something like this).  The guy let me shower and called some other guy to arrange a ride for me back to the regular Georgian transit network.

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A seat on the 6:30am marshrutka to Kutaisi in central Georgia, where I caught a very nice van back to Tbilisi for a day of rest. The seven hour van ride to Tbilisi in total cost me about $10.

 

 

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