Arriving in Mestia
Hugh Collins tells his story of visiting the town of Mestia, a small village nestled at 1500m in the Caucasus Mountains.
A sharp rap on the door and a staccato bark of Russian wakes me with a start. Sitting up and rubbing what little sleep I’d managed from my eyes, I slide open the door of our compartment. There, I’m greeted by the sight of an elderly train attendant, her stout form squeezed into a faded grey uniform and an inexplicably furious look on her face. Her angry and incomprehensible Russian continues before she fixes me with a final glare and turns away. Curiously, as she disappears down the train the sound of her knocking and barked instructions to fellow passengers gets louder, not quieter, as if our wake up had merely been her warm up. “I think she was telling us we are the next station,” my friend Ben says sleepily, slowly lacing up his walking boots and, sure enough, a little over ten minutes later just as first light breaks we pull into the station at Zugdidi, ready to head into the mountains. We’d come to Georgia, an enigmatic country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, for two reasons: its food and its mountains. And after a few days of feasting in the capital Tbilisi, with its doughy, dumpling-like khinkali and cheese-filled khachapuri, our minds, and our waistlines, were ready for the clean air and honesty of the hills. Georgia’s northern border, a jumble of geology, shares the vast Caucasus range with Russia to the north. Little-visited and often politically-delicate, the snow-topped Caucasus reach over 5,000m in altitude and while we weren’t planning on ascending to those heights there were plenty of lower-level hikes that we were looking forward to getting our teeth into.
Our destination from Zugdidi was Mestia, a village high in the foothills of the Caucasus in the Svaneti region, having to reach it by one of the many beat-up minibuses whose drivers clamoured for our attention at the station. The drive was long and winding, slowly snaking up following the bends of a rushing, grey river as rain hammered down and the road deteriorated. Svaneti has only recently become accessible to tourists and in Georgia’s tumultuous history the area has a reputation for brigandry and lawlessness with rival clans fiercely dispensing their own form of justice. This past comes into light as, after three hours, we near the village and the horizon is dotted with watchtowers; man made monoliths in the presence of mountains. These huge square structures have become emblematic of the region and despite many slowly crumbling away, at least 60 or so remain in Mestia alone. Mestia itself is a village that has become the hub of the area’s nascent tourism. Spread out along the river, it still retains the feel of a somewhat frontier town. Folk music plays from the bars in the main square and stray dogs chase horse-drawn wagons along the pot-holed streets. However, its attractions are plentiful if one just looks up; Mestia is nestled amongst the Caucasus, whose lofty heights disappeared into dark clouds, teasing and tantalising, but somehow threatening as well.
We forwent the popular walk to neighbouring Ushguli, as the snow had yet to fully melt on the high passes, and instead headed for the Chalaadi Glacier at the head of the valley. Not just a walk beneath the high peaks, it showed too how Mestia and the region are changing. The path headed north from the village, following the river, along a rough road being newly used by hydroelectric companies and past empty, half-formed hotels and guesthouses with a slight melancholy air. Mestia feels like a place waiting for something to happen, somewhere about to take a deep breath and plunge without knowing where the currents might take it. With hiking, mountaineering and skiing all possible it needs only a nudge to become a fully-fledged resort town, but I hope whatever the future brings it retains that sense of ‘other’, that fierce independence, that sets the village and the region apart.
After 15 km or so the road petered out and the path zig-zagged left across the river via a rickety iron, suspension bridge. A remnant of the Soviet-era, its planks creaked and sighed, audible despite the roar of the river, and it was not without our own sigh of relief when we reached the other side. There the path dipped into dark, atmospheric forest, winding over tumbled moraine boulders, their surfaces treacherous and slippy underfoot, worn smooth not by countless feet but by the rain and the ice. Thirty minutes later we stepped out into the moraine field, a jumble of countless boulders discarded by the retreating ice, and there, ahead, lay the huge glacier itself. It’s a strange thing to stand beneath a glacier, especially when it is devoid of any other visitors. You’re reminded of nature’s power but also its perseverance, the thousands of years that this sheet of ice has been here, scraping and scouring, creating the world you’ve hiked through. A loud ping woke us from our geological daydreams. We looked at each other alarmed. Our guidebook had warned us to carry our passports on the trek due to the Russian border guards in the area, and images of ricocheting rifle shots filled our imaginations. The reality was no less frightening with the pinging sound of rocks as they tumbled for the ridge lines towards us. Blocks the size of fridges skidded and careered down the scree with a speed that belied their size and threat. That was it for us, and with a final glance toward the glacier and a nod to Mother Nature we made our retreat. It seemed, funnily enough, to sum up our week in Mestia. A little dangerous, faintly ridiculously but utterly intoxicating.