Mestia, the regional capital of Svaneti. Photo by Mitya
This is what our friend Natasha (who grew up in Tbilisi and moved to Moscow in the late 90s) said to us when we told her about our most recent trip to Georgia. Many places in the world have changed since the late 1990s, though, and Svaneti is among them. The execution of the main robber baron in 2004 brought the crime rate down and made it safe for tourists to travel there. And in 2012, the current Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili had the road to Mestia (Svaneti's regional capital) paved, which reduced the travel time from 8 to 3 hours from Zugdidi.
That being said, I wouldn't say that Svaneti (or Georgia in general) is crawling with tourists. They're definitely there, but it doesn't approach anything you see in parts of Western Europe, Croatia, or Prague. So you can still come here and feel like you are discovering something new.
Svan child learning how to ride in Ushguli, taken on film by Michelle
Last time, we discussed how to get to Svaneti. Now, we will talk about what to do while you're there. The typical tourist itinerary would be to stay in Mestia for a few days and take a day trip to Ushguli. Your host would probably suggest that you take one of two hikes in Mestia (one is a grueling, all-day affair to a glacier, the other is a less grueling, 2-3 hour affair to another glacier), take the ski lift to the top of one of the mountains, and go to the Ethnographic Museum in Mestia. Then, on another day, you would be schlepped in a van with 6-8 other people for a long, bumpy, 3 hour ride to Ushguli. You would then have 4 hours to see this UNESCO World Heritage site before you would be loaded back onto the bus for the bumpy 3 hour ride back to Mestia. (You may think that 4 hours is enough time to see a small mountain village, but trust me, the people with whom we shared the van were practically running to see all the sights and make it back to the bus by 4 pm.)
Mestia airport. Flights are frequently canceled because of the winds. Photo by Mitya
Hike to the glacier. Photo by Mitya
Here's what we did:
1) Took a hike (literally) to one of the glaciers. Yes, this is part of the typical tourist itinerary, but Svaneti is known just as well for its spectacular nature as it is for its preserved ancient traditions. We did the 2-3 hour hike because we wanted to visit villages in the afternoon.
Village off the main road, near Mestia. Photo by Michelle
Cows grazing at the entrance to Mazeri, Svaneti, Georgia. Taken by Mitya.
Children in Mazeri playing cards. Photo by Mitya
We also saw stone houses that were most likely several centuries old, as well as a few Svan towers in ruins. We also saw pigs rolling in the mud, cows, horses, and a beautiful flower-filled meadow in front of the Caucasus mountains.
Pigs having a good time in Mazeri, Svaneti, Georgia. Photo by Mitya
Afternoon stroll in Mazeri. Photo by Mitya
A meadow filled with flowers just outside of Mazeri. Photo by Michelle
Cows hanging out in front of a house in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya
The local watering hole in Svipi. Photo by Mitya
Svan children in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya
Mountaintop seen through the window of an abandoned house in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya
Next time: Ushguli!