‘’The construction of Svan towers is not accidental, the ancestors knew how to build a functional building. They pointed the steep side toward the mountain to avoid an avalanche in the harsh winter,” our host, Murman explained. He was barreling down the road as he drove us to the trailhead where we’d set off on foot from Mestia to Ushguli–a popular multi-day hike through the high mountains of Georgia’s Svaneti region, dotted with picturesque ancient villages.
Glancing at the clouds in the sky, he gave us a warning not to venture too close to the river if it started to rain. We said our goodbyes and took the first of what would be tens of thousands of steps connecting us from Mestia to Ushguli over the course of a few days.
Laughing with labored breath, we climbed the first rocky ascent and reminisced on Murman’s stories and what a harsh winter in Svaneti must be like. Trudging down a narrow path, that in my mind could only make sense for horse hooves, a faint view of our first village stop appeared off in the distance. Across one of the hills was the faint flicker of Tsvirmi village, and while it was still several hours away, it was the first promising beacon of the trek.
The pigs were roaming between the fences and the chickens were already preparing for sleep when we made it to Tsvirmi. I noticed a pair of guard dogs–the infamously large and snow white Caucasian shepherds–and felt an embarrassing urge to ask our hosts if we’d run into many of them on the trail. Fortunately not, they said. I was relieved until they mentioned that there aren’t many Caucasian shepherds because there aren’t many sheep–and there aren’t many sheep because there are too many wolves. Well, you win some, you lose some.
By the time evening rolled around it was raining and we watched from the guest house balcony as the family’s night unfolded. Dad returned from work and housed the cattle, mom changed the children’s wet clothes one by one, and the shepherd puppies huddled together under our table in fear of the thunder and in hope of a few food scraps.
The next morning we set off toward Adishi. Our trail was a narrow one, lined with tall flowers and riverbanks crowded with hogweeds–a poisonous mountain flower whose sap will leave a nasty burn if you’re not careful. Before we knew it we were in misty woodlands fit for a fairytale with butterflies swarming around and warm rays of sunlight pouring between the treetops.
In the distance I heard the gushing of a few small rivers we’d soon need to cross. My curiosity and excitement rose to an all time high. Would I have to gingerly leap across mossy stones? Or will there be a tiny, rickety bridge we must cross?
Like the rivers, Adishi remained hidden until the very last moment. With just a few kilometers left, we started to hear the rumble of the village with cows mooing, dogs barking and the gentle rumble of day-to-day life.
Everyone hid somewhere as soon as we set foot, as if these sounds were ghosts. That’s when a heavy rain began to fall. We sought shelter in an abandoned hotel. It was sad to see party-colored banners, rooms full of empty beds, restrooms with baths filled with rain water, and chairs eaten up by insects. Eventually we made our way to a more lively hostel where we’d make our bed for the evening before continuing on.
With its abandoned medieval towers that are sliced in half with bitten roofs, Adishi is a fascinating settlement. The village has two churches dedicated to St. George, one at the top of the village and the other at the bottom, both of which preserve exquisite frescoes. When the village was crushed by an avalanche, scholars predicted which side the snow-capped pile would fall to and gathered the entire inhabitants in one part of the village to rescue themselves; indeed, these stone-built towers were the sole victims of the strict nature. I tried to visualize how everyone gathered in the dark on that icy evening with hushed voices and anxiety in the air.
Our host was preparing tashmijab on the stove, a traditional Svan dish made up of cheese melted into boiling potatoes and then mashed. As the wood cracked underneath the stove and the smoke poured out from the pot with the smell of salty cheese, we all agreed that there was no better ailment after a long day of hiking.
After dinner, it started to get very cold and the host poured some chacha (traditional Georgian spirit) for us. In unison, we all took a swig. It was strong but aromatic and pleasant to drink with a thick branch in the bottle that looked like bamboo.
“This is a medicinal plant, Hogweed,” said the host.
Feeling feverish for a second, I murmured to my boyfriend Ben that I think this plant could be very dangerous. We sat in silence, not knowing what we were thinking. Politely, I explained to the host that I had read that this plant is extremely poisonous. Perhaps I’d misread?
“Only if it comes into contact with the skin, but we use the plant’s healing properties,” she explained, before telling us an unusual story:
“Once my grandfather went hunting with his friends. When they took an afternoon break, one of his friends fell asleep with his mouth wide open and a tiny snake crawled inside. They all decided then and there, that instead of waking him up in fear, they’d offer him hogweed chacha when he awoke. Afterall, hogweed thoroughly cleanses the liver and stomach, so he should be fine, right? So when he woke up, they all drank the hogweed tincture together and rested assured that the medicinal plant would do its job.”
Even though we still had two days ahead of us, we shrugged our shoulders and handed her our glasses for a refill. Afterall, it’s practically medicine, we told ourselves.
On the third day we knew our biggest challenge was still to come: the Enguri River. Unless you have a deathwish, the only way to safely cross the river is by horse. We hired a horse on the shore and seemed to cross the river instantly. It was one of those moments that goes so fast, you don’t even realize what’s happened until the moment is gone.
With several kilometers still to go, we began our climb up the mountain ahead of us. Shortly after, the entire sky opened up with pouring rain and with just one path up the mountain, now full of muddy slopes and knee deep puddles, we had no choice but to push on. Slipping and sliding, we miraculously made it to a lookout for the Adishi Glacier whose ice flows into the Enguri River. It was a nice moment of stillness just before a massive boom of thunder shook the air around us as flickers of lightning shot across the sky. It was time to go.
With adrenaline rushing through our veins, and eyesight blurry from nonstop rain, I felt like I had actually personified the phrase “go with the flow.”
Far off in the distance, we saw a tiny mountain hut with a weedy pathway only accessible by turning our hiking sticks into makeshift machetes. We knew we couldn’t stay long, we still had a ways to go, but those brief moments of shelter and relaxation made a world of difference.
As we trekked on, we noticed landslides on different parts of the paths up ahead. A signal to go faster. Much faster. Once we made it to a safe stretch of the path, we were close to our last village posting, Lalkhori. One last night before we’d reach Ushguli. After the longest day yet, we treated ourselves to khachapuri in a quiet, wooden cafe while our wardrobe–all dripping wet at this point–hung on some abandoned posts. As we ate in silence, we knew that we’d never be able to fully convey the beauty and excitement of this day to its full extent. The memories were ours and ours only.
Unlike the days leading up to it, the last stretch of the hike came swiftly and easily, with not much left to trudge. It was as if Ushguli came to us instantly, knowing how absolutely exhausted we were. Finally coming into view, we took in the ancient village dotted with towers, shrines and cut out tourist signs all framed by the towering mountain just behind it. It was a bittersweet moment to bring our journey, which had taken us across gushing rivers, through swampy forests, and up impossibly steep mountains, to a close. But we’d earned it.