I had one more hike to do before we left Svaneti and moved down into the lowlands.
I was glad to be back at Meri’s again. It wasn’t as though the food had been bad in Ushguli. It’s just that Meri’s cooking made everyone else’s seem mediocre by comparison.
The heat was so intense I caught myself glancing up from time to time, expecting to see a giant with a magnifying glass centred on my head. We trudged to the ethnography and history museum in search of cold air, and then trudged through town in search of cold beer.
Tonight’s supper, for the two of us: soup, salad, peppers stuffed with meat, soft squeaky cheese, a vegetable dish with peppers and aubergine, and a bubbling skillet of Shkmeruli (roasted chicken boiled in a garlic sauce) with a pitcher of homemade peach juice.
We’d already spent three nights in her home, but every breakfast and supper was different: a full spectrum not just of Svaneti food but the cuisine of most of Georgia.
My early morning pre-hike breakfast was an omelette filled with fresh herbs from the garden, khachapuri (homemade bread stuffed with cheese), little meat-filled dumplings, homemade yogurt, tomato and cucumber salad, and fresh pastries. And then it was time to shoulder my pack and find a way to the trailhead.
I’d only walked a few minutes to the bridge when a passing taxi offered me a lift. The village of Nesguni felt deserted as I slipped down an alley between two Svan towers, passed a courtyard water pump and walked along a fence to the hill. I wouldn’t see another person until I hiked back down.
I knew the first part of the route should follow a cow path up to a church, but so many paths threaded the hillside that I ended up below the building rather than above it. From there I should climb straight up a very steep meadow, angling vaguely left, where I would meet a road.
What I found was a badly overgrown remnant of track that followed a plastic water pipe dug into a shallow trench. Open space had been overtaken by thistle and the bodies of fallen trees. Vacillation swept over me and I trudged back and forth second-guessing, but then the track changed direction and became much rougher and stonier.
I was soon winding my way up the hillside on a ridge of hardened earth and rock, suitable perhaps for animals but surely not for cars?
Tree gave way to sky a couple hours later, just beyond a pine forest, and a slope beckoned upwards. I followed a semi-vanishing path through deep grass around the flank of Mt. Lashkvid, losing the trail from time to time as I aimed for an obvious ridge. Given the limited view from below, I would have struggled to stay on track while climbing without the GPS file I’d found for my Garmin.
On the far side, a summer hut sat in an alpine bowl basking in blissful seclusion. There were no signs of humans or herd.
Somehow I missed the “well-beaten track” that cut through forest towards a long grassy ridge (it was more obvious when returning from the other direction), and met a herd of horses on a narrow trail. They shit in alarm and trotted ahead, leaving me with hungry horseflies for companions. I would spot them again an hour later, grazing on a distant ridge.
Navigation got a lot easier once I left the trees behind. My objective was silhouetted against the sky, beneath clouds that looked as though they’d been nailed there.
I followed the undulating ascension of a grassy ridge — steep meadow on the side I’d slogged up and sheer drop on the other — towards what looked like a rocky peak. There were no trails of any kind, but the way was clear.
I reached the summit of Mt. Gul (2,930m) after four and a half hours of straight climbing and 1600m in elevation gain, with no stops for rest.
I wasn’t far below 10,000 feet, but Mt. Ushba’s terrifyingly sheer grey face towered above me at 4,690m (15,387 feet), flanked by the teeth of the higher Caucasus that stretched to misty infinity on both sides.
I leaned my pack against a stone cairn and opened my lunch. A hunting hawk soared over to inspect it, circled thrice, and drifted away in the direction of Mt. Layla.
It was a pretty good place to eat my leftover khachapuri with a piece of salty cheese and a plum. I could have sat there for hours, but the forecast called for late afternoon storms, and I wanted to be below the tree line if they struck.
The path was much easier to see from above, and the descent passed like a fever dream, my arms sticky with sweat and dried sunscreen, and my eyes filled with the afterimage of peaks.
Back at the main road, I thumbed a lift to Mestia with a Slovak couple in a rental car. I’d hiked the 18km round trip in 7 hours, rather than the 9 listed on the Caucasus hiking site.
My arms and legs were so peppered by nettles that I looked like the bearer of a hideous contagion. I stopped at a pharmacy to buy a tube of antihistamine ointment, and then a bottle of beer to fill the gap until dinner.
Meri prepared a spicy red soup, ojakhuri (roasted potatoes, pork, onion and peppers), a ratatouille-type vegetable dish with fresh green beans, another vegetable dish in walnut sauce, and chakapuli — chicken with tarragon and fresh herbs that I’d seen her collecting from the garden. We washed it down with homemade wine and a pitcher of peach juice.
My legs and feet were aching from the hike, but I ate so much I had to take a long evening walk, and then sleep sitting up.