© Emily Lush 2017

Kazbegi, Svaneti or Tusheti—Which Caucasus Mountain Region Should You Visit in Georgia?

No trip to Georgia would be complete without a visit to the Greater Caucasus—the mountain range that separates Georgia from Russia and gives the Trans-Caucasus region its name. The backdrop to countless novels and, more recently, the film The Loneliest Planet, the scenery in the Caucasus is comparable to the Swiss Alps—only Georgia is a very budget-friendly travel destination. If, like me, you haven’t experienced ‘proper’ mountains before, the Greater Caucasus will take your breath away.

 


 

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When planning our itinerary for our recent trip to the country of Georgia, I kept getting hung up on which mountain region/s we should visit. I found a lot of conflicting information online, and struggled to figure out which area would best suit our travel style.

So to help you plan your own Georgia itinerary, I’ve put together a brief comparison of Georgia’s three most popular mountain regions—Kazbegi (Stepantsminda), Tusheti and Svaneti. At the end of the post, I list some alternative destinations in Georgia where you can get your mountain fix.

 

Orientation

The Greater Caucasus mountain range stretches 1,200 kilometres along the Georgia/Azerbaijan-Russia border, from the Taman Peninsula of the Black Sea to the Absheron Peninsula of the Caspian Sea. The north part of the range borders the Russian territories of Ossetia, Chechnya and Daghestan. To the south, descendants of ancient tribes and warrior clans reside in what is now present-day Georgia and Azerbaijan. Due to its geography (steep peaks, deep valleys, impassable mountains), the Caucasus has an incredible cultural and ethnic plurality. It’s second only to Papua New Guinea in terms of linguistic diversity.

Mountaineers will be familiar with the Greater Caucasus as a premier hiking destination. For the average tourist, visiting one or more of these mountainous regions will be an unforgettable part of your Georgia itinerary.

 

© Emily Lush 2017

Kazbegi (Stepantsminda)

Out of all of Georgia’s mountainous regions, the town of Kazbegi—often called by its new name, Stepantsminda—sees the most tourists. The iconic Gergeti Trinity Church (pictured above) has become a symbol for Georgia’s booming tourism industry.

Kazbegi is the most accessible of the three regions covered here and unlike the other two, the roads are conveniently open year-round. Located 150km due North of Tbilisi, it’s the best option for anyone who’s on a strict schedule and looking for an easy mountain escape from the capital.

On the downside, Kazbegi is also the most touristed of the three spots—and its location on the arterial Georgian Military Highway means the town has an almost-constant backdrop of roaring Russian trucks. Thankfully, the traffic doesn’t detract from the scenery—which is absolutely breathtaking.

Good for: Easy hikes, scenery, luxury.

Accessibility: Excellent. It’s fast and cheap to get to Stepantsminda from Tbilisi’s Didube station. Expect to pay around 30 GEL for a seat in a shared taxi (drive time: around 2.5 hours) or 10 GEL for a marshrutka ticket (drive time: around 3 hours). If you’re coming from elsewhere in Georgia, you must transit through Tbilisi.

Recommended time to spend in Kazbegi: 1-2 nights. Allow a full day for hiking to Gergeti Trinity/Gergeti Glacier or a half day if you plan to go by 4WD.

Top things to see and do in Kazbegi:

  • Georgian Military Highway: The Georgian Military Highway is spectacularly scenic. Hire a shared taxi or private car if you want to stop off on the way at Ananuri and/or the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument.
  • Gergeti Trinity Church: A Georgian icon, Gergeti Trinity is a must-see. The church is perched high over the town, so you can gaze at it from wherever you are in Stepantsminda—but it’s also worth going up for a closer look. The hike is wonderful, provided you follow my advice and take the correct path! Otherwise, you can opt for a 4WD transfer. Entrance to the church is free.
  • Gergeti Glacier: Located past Gergeti Trinity on the southeastern slope of Mount Kazbek, Gergeti Glacier is a strenuous eight-hour return walk from Stepantsminda. Serious hikers can also summit Mount Kazbek.
  • Rooms Hotel Kazbegi: In Soviet times, Kazbegi was a health retreat. The old sanatorium was recently transformed into Rooms Hotel Kazbegi—one of Georgia’s premier boutique hotels (brought to you by the same crowd as Fabrika Tbilisi). Even if you aren’t staying at Rooms, it’s well worth dropping in for lunch or a glass of wine (or both) on the deck, which boasts lovely views of the town and Mount Kazbek.

 

© Emily Lush 2017

Tusheti

Because of its remote location in far northeastern Georgia, Tusheti offers the most off-the-beaten track mountain experience of the three regions. It may be more difficult (and more expensive) to get into Tusheti National Park—but once you’re there, you’ll be rewarded with incomparable scenery and Georgian hospitality.

Good for: Solitude, multi-day hikes, scenery.

Accessibility: Remote. A single (and treacherous) one-way road connects Omalo, Tusheti’s biggest town, with Telavi and Sighnaghi in Georgia’s Kakheti region. The Abano Pass, as it’s known, is only open at certain times of year. In the winter, most residents move south and the road closes. When we were in Georgia in late May, the pass was still yet to open for the year. If you do happen to be there at the right time, it’s only possible to get to Omalo with a 4WD and an experienced driver.

Recommended time to spend in Tusheti: It takes a full day of travel to get to Tusheti from Tbilisi or Kakheti, so you’ll want to take your time once you arrive. I recommend staying for at least 3 nights.

Top things to see and do in Tusheti:

  • Abano Pass: One of the world’s most dangerous roads, the journey to and from Tusheti via the Abano Pass is an adventure in and of itself.
  • Omalo: Most tourists base themselves in Omalo, Tusheti’s main population centre, where you can find good guesthouses and beautiful scenery.
  • Shatili: The 5-day, 75km trek from Omalo to the village of Shatili is one of the most popular hiking routes in all of Georgia. Read more about it here.
  • Shenaqo and Diklo: 6.4km east of Omalo, Shenaqo is a pretty village full of balconied houses. It boasts the only functional Orthodox church in the region. 4km east of Shenaqo, Diklo village is known for its old fortress and valley views.
  • Dartlo: 12km east of Omalo, Dartlo overlooks the Pirikiti Alazani Valley. There are a few guesthouses in town, making it an ideal place to stop if you’re on a multi-day hike.
  • Stone towers: Dotted throughout Tusheti’s villages (and also found in Svaneti and beyond), stone defensive towers or murkvam are reminders of the Caucasus’s tumultuous past. Whole families once lived inside the towers, designed to protect the residents of valley hamlets from invaders and marauders. Built between the 9th and 13th century, the towers can be up to 25 metres tall and are an unmissable feature of the Greater Caucasus landscape. 

 

© Emily Lush 2017

Svaneti

I’m told that the traditional residents of Svaneti—the fearsome Svan people—still got around in chain mail up until the mid-19th century. Home to one of the Caucasus’s most fascinating ethnic groups, this is a great place to experience not only hiking and nature but Svanetian culture, history and food.

Located in northwestern Georgia, the main town of Mestia is 245km from Kutaisi, making Svaneti an ideal choice for anyone flying in and out of David the Builder airport (now serviced by Wizz Air). Even if you’re transiting through Tbilisi but your itinerary focuses on western Georgia, Svaneti is a great option.

Good for: Culture, history, food, single- and multi-day hikes.

Accessibility: Good. Svaneti’s main town, Mestia, can be reached by marshtruka from Kutaisi (25 GEL; drive time: approximately 5.5 hours) or Batumi via Zugdidi (35 GEL; drive time: approximately 6 hours). The road to Mestia is open year-round, but the more treacherous drive to Ushguli along a steep cliff face can only be done during the summer months (roughly April to September).

Recommended time to spend in Svaneti: 3-4 nights. Mestia has great accommodation options and is a very comfortable little town, with the best range of restaurants, cafes and bars of any of the three regions mentioned here. It’s a good place to relax for a couple of days—and after the drive up, you’ll need a day or two to recuperate.

Top things to see and do in Svaneti:

  • Mestia: Svaneti’s main popular centre is well-equipped for tourists. The main town square is a pretty spot to sit and sunbathe—it’s also where 4WDs and marshrutka wait each morning to ferry tourists to Ushguli.
  • Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography: Located in Mesia, this award-winning museum defied my expectations. Exhibits cover various aspects of Svanetian history and culture (including a large section devoted to costume and textiles), and will help you to better understand the local area.
  • Ushguli: Technically a collection of several villages, Ushguli lies 47km (or about 2.5 hours drive) west of Mestia at the head of the Enguri gorge. Chazhashi, one of the villages, is preserved as a museum-reserve and is home to more than 200 murkvam stone towers. Incredibly, many of them are still occupied by families today. Minivans depart Mestia for Ushguli daily (during the on-season) and cost 30 GEL per person return. Alternatively, you can hike to Ushguli over 4 days.
  • The Tower of Love: Located on the road from Mestia to Ushguli, the Tower of Love was set up by an enterprising local resident. Basically, it’s a fine example of a murkvam stone tower sitting on the bank of a delightful little stream. Pay the small fee, and you can climb the series of wooden ladders right to the top. It’s worth doing for the chance to see what the living conditions are like inside.
  • Khatsvali Ski Resort: Outside of skiing season, this fir-tree lined resort transforms into a day hikers’ paradise. Chairlifts operate year-round.
  • Single-day hikes: There is a wealth of single-day hikes to do around Mestia—the most popular being to Chalaadi Glacier and Koruldi Lakes.
  • Eat Svanetian cuisine: When in Svaneti, you must sample the region’s distinctive (and indulgent) cuisine. Highlights include kubdari—or Svanetian ‘meat pie’—a khachapuri bread stuffed with mince meat, and chvishtari, a pan-fried cornmeal bread stuffed with cheese. Cafe Laila, right on the town square, is the most popular eatery in town and serves all the local favourites.
  • Eat Svanetian salt: Worth a mention all of its own, Svanetian salt is an addictive concoction made from sea salt and spices—fenugreek, dill, coriander, cumin, marigold, red pepper, and who knows what else. You’ll find it on the dining tables of every good guesthouse and restaurant in the area. We purchased a few bags from our guesthouse to take back to Tbilisi as a gift for our Airbnb hosts—it went down very well.

 

© Emily Lush 2017

Alternative options

Looking for something different? Try another of these popular destinations in Georgia to get your mountain fix.

Gudauri

A ski resort town located off the Georgian Military Highway between Tbilisi and Kazbegi. Sitting on the south-facing plateau of the Greater Caucasus, Gudauri boasts fantastic views of the mountain range.

Juta

One of Kazbegi’s highest settlements, Juta is located 24km east of  Stepantsminda, close to the Chaukhi mountain range. Check out Fifth Season cabins if you’re headed this way.

Racha

100km (approximately 4 hours by marshrutka) northeast of Kutaisi, Racha-Lechkhum-Kvemo Svaneti Planned National Park—or Racha—sits in the upper Rioni river valley at the foot of the Greater Caucasus. As well as gorgeous mountain-scapes, the park contains Shaori—the region’s largest lake— and the town of Nikortmsinda, with its 10th century temple. Learn more about visiting Racha here.

Lagodekhi Protected Areas

Located in the northeast corner of Georgia’s Kakheti district—where Georgia meets Azerbaijan and Russia—Lagodekhi Protected Areas is one of the country’s most unique landscapes. From the town of Lagodekhi (150km east of Tbilisi), you can take a multi-day hike right up to the mountains and lakes that form the border with Daghestan.

Bakuriani

It’s not the Greater Caucasus—but Bakuriani in Georgia’s southern Borjomi district is another popular mountainous spot for tourists, especially those who like to ski. Located on the northern slope of the Trialeti Range, Bakuriani is 180km from both Tbilisi and Kutaisi.

Elsewhere…

There is, of course, a huge swathe of mountains that lies between the population centres mentioned above. It’s possible to explore a lot of it on foot, either independently or with a guide. I’m no trekker (did you notice?), so if you’re looking for more advanced hiking routes in the Caucasus, I’ll refer you to Caucasus Trekking, the premier authority on the subject.

 


 

Have you spent time in Georgia’s Greater Caucasus? What was your favourite spot?

 


 

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