By Brianna 29/December/16 Georgia
Stunning, untouched Mazeri, tucked away in the heart of Svaneti, felt like a very pure place, unaffected by the goings on in the rest of the world. So close to the baron wilderness of Russia, but full of people who had lived there all their lives, enjoying the nature and solitude of their surroundings. It was just missing one important thing: food...
Vowing to return for a Sunday lunch of home-made Kachapuri (regional varieties of cheesy eggy breadyness), we left our wonderful My Moon Hostel family in search of some hiking adventures in the Georgian mountains. Once our chosen marshrukta had been to have its front tyres changed, we sped off at the mercy of our driver, expertly multi-tasking an animated phone call, a lit cigarette and the steering wheel. Pot holes, speed limits and oncoming traffic were nonchalantly discarded, allowing us to reach our destination earlier than we expected.
Although Mestia usually acts as the tourist base for most travellers, we had decided to start off in the smaller, more rural village of Mazeri to experience something a bit closer to normal life in the highlands. The majority of residents here live off their own land, spending their time out in the fields, shuttling back and forth from the village on mule-drawn carts and maybe opening their homes as tourist guest houses in the high-season for a bit of extra income. There is only one, very poorly equipped, shop. If you don't produce your own groceries here, you either have to drive 25km to Mestia to visit their extortionately priced markets or head 4 hours back down the windy tracks to Zugdidi, from where our journey had commenced. It occurred to us that maybe we should have brought more to eat with us than a massive vat of chocolate spread.
Alex, who gets a little bit touchy when he doesn't know where his next meal is coming from, went knocking on doors to see if anybody was selling their own produce. As luck would have it, a guest house, which was in the process of shutting down until ski-season, offered us some cheese and vegetables and invited us to camp in their field. We accepted gladly; the view from the field was incredible and the solitary horse we shared it with made for a great atmosphere. We had planned to have our first attempt at wild camping but Cheddar raised the excellent point that cows tend to be shifted around a lot and there was no way of knowing which pieces of land were being used by which farmer - a place that looks like a perfect camping spot one evening could easily be overrun by cattle and angry farmers by dawn.
Day one began with a there-and-back hike to the Ushba Glacier, an 18km walk that took us within throwing distance of Georgia's gigantic neighbour, Russia. We were waved through border control with a 'Just make sure you come back' and continued the steep incline, happy to notice an improvement in our hiking stamina since departing the UK. Before long, we got distracted by a duo of powerful waterfalls and ended up going a little bit off-piste. We don't get lost too often, but when we do it's usually a catastrophic mistake that would have been easily avoidable with a shred of common sense. We managed to clamber up a rocky, near-vertical stream protruding from one of the waterfalls right to its source before becoming cats in a tree, with no safe way to get down. The view was incredible though. On our descent from the glacier, Cheddar was keen to point out how obvious and well sign-posted the actual path was.
Once we managed to find a sensible way back onto solid ground, it didn't take us long to rejoin the trail. A couple of hours later and we were in sight of the Glacier that acted as the focal point of our walk. Leaving pre-sunrise had rewarded us with an empty viewpoint, calm for another hour before the storm of hikers would hit. Still full of energy, we clambered up massive niiice boulders (we don't think we're funny, either) to find a lunch spot with a better view. Our leftover dinner items and chocolate spread powered us back down the valley but by the time we returned, 11 hours after we left, the hunger was in full force again. Naively, we thought our food woes were in the past, as the family we met yesterday had offered to cook for us this evening. The deserted house sounded the first pang of Alex's food anxiety. Cheddar, the little delinquent, decided to go all Mission Impossible and break in through the letter box to use the loo. Mr. Tom Cruise had it all under control until he became Ms. Miranda Hart, struggling to break back out again.
Luckily, a couple of tourists who had arrived earlier in the day returned with news that the family would be late back for dinner and a key to decriminalise Cheddar's misadventures. The second pang. We waited, easing our hunger with some fruit kindly provided by the couple, until it was too dark to even think about finding food elsewhere. The third pang. The only member of the family to return that night was an elderly man dressed in the tweed-suit and flat-cap countryside Sunday best combo. He was not as amiable or accommodating as his female relatives. There was no way he was providing food for these strangers he seemed to think had invaded his home. I doubt he had ever cooked for anybody. Thankfully, our new, lovely Russian-speaking co-habitant asked if we could heat up the leftovers from last night's dinner, which he begrudgingly accepted. Although we paid for the food, we couldn't shake the feeling that we were not welcome, the exact opposite of what we had experienced the day before.
The hike to Mestia the next day, over the treacherous Guli Pass, tried our patience and stamina. The night before was the first in a sickness series that hit us in the Caucasus, and I was the first victim, attacked with an inability to eat. I hadn't managed more than a mouthful of dinner, making it extremely tough to summon the energy needed to hoist the backpack up the switchbacks on my weak legs. The morning's ascent of 1200 vertical meters seemed to go on forever. We joined forces with some Belgian guys that we had previously bumped into in Mazeri to motivate each other up to the highest point. At the time, none of us were in the mind-set for company, needing all available oxygen for breathing, but once we made it to the top of the pass, the mood infinitely shifted. The Belgians and their guides were fantastic hiking compadres. The fact that we were eating pure chocolate spread for lunch again did not go unnoticed and they shared their food with us. Although we had spent the past three days feeling like vultures, having to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by, it had taught us some valuable life lessons and made us determined to help people the way we had been whenever we were able to do so. We had a lot of fun trekking down to tourist-hub Mestia, even herding some cows down with us along the way...
Mestia was no Mazeri. Despite the iconic, stone square towers, it was so catered towards tourists and tour groups that it lacked authenticity and the medieval countryside 'Game of Thrones' quality it was supposed to exude. We were glad to have had a separate experience of Svaneti to remember, but gladder still to be able to buy and cook our own dinner. Our hiking efforts hadn't pushed our travels any further East. In fact, we were going back to exactly where our Georgian jaunt began to pick up our Azeri visas. If we weren't in a rush to get back to Batumi, we could have easily spent more time getting to know Svaneti better. However, we have found throughout the trip that moving on quickly and only spending a short time in one place does have its perks: you always tend to leave on a high.
Until next time amigos!