The only road I love to travel by car is the Samegrelo-Svaneti highway. Each time I take the turn in the road at signpost “Svaneti 135km,” a new adventure starts. The first stretch of the road is tree-lined as it runs toward the commanding grayish mountains ahead. On a clear day, you can see the mountain range as it draws nearer. I always stop at the hydropower plant on the Enguri River – an engineering marvel.
I always look farther, beyond the imposing Enguri wall, hoping with a childish naïveté to spot even a single person there. I often wonder what happens behind that wall, how people there live, work, love…
I try to travel the road to Mestia before sunset in order to see all that I can. At every eleventh kilometer of the road, nature changes radically. This is such a lively process that one has the feeling of watching a majestic screen constantly transformed by stunningly natural images. At one turn an open mountain landscape changes abruptly into a narrow rocky valley with the terrible roar of the Enguri River rumbling in your ears.
The road is somewhat damaged near Khaishi where construction of the Khudoni hydropower plant (HPP) was launched some twenty years ago before it was decided that nature would be harmed with increased humidity caused by the HPP. The fuss kicked up about the supposed environmental threat effectively halted construction. Twenty years later, however, we have learned through new research that the construction of water reservoirs is a positive phenomenon and an important process for life and human development.
Before taking a turn in the road alongside a forest of broad-leaved trees leading into a picturesque valley, one can hear the distant sound of the river Nenskra. Approaching the river brings a feeling of cold cleanliness. I have always thought that this place, given its geographic location, must be one of the healthiest and cleanest in the world. My failure to find a source to support my opinion, despite an extensive search, does not detract in any way from the sense of purity and vitality one derives from this unusually white and translucent river running through the green valley.
The whiteness of Nenskra is followed by an extreme road of Shavi Ghele known locally as the Black Ravine. An eroded slope blocks the road once about every twenty-five minutes during a rainstorm, but one is not afraid or fearful of being left alone – flexible and accommodating Kamazo caterpillars work constantly to unblock the road.
And still, the damp black shale shines ominously. Sun-scorched and grayish, it does not at first sight seem either “black” or dangerous. However, I recognize the danger instantly and try to avoid it.
A line of villages along the road starts about eight kilometers from the ravine. As you drive on, count the towers and ancient chapels that guarded ancient gospels and other precious artifacts for centuries. These elevated towers protected such treasures from hordes of invaders for few, if any, of the enemy forces could climb so high. The farther you drive, the greater the treasure.
Today, the modern concrete road to Mestia ensures a comfortable journey allowing one to experience the genuineness and intact nature of this region. The length of travel has decreased over time, leaving the traveler less and less tired.
The landscape of the village Etseri opens up again. The highest tower of Svaneti is erected here. This idyllic village is surrounded by majestic ski slopes acknowledged as some of the great wonders of the region.
If you reach Becho before sunset, do not hesitate to try “sour water” from the mineral spring located just one-hundred meters from the turn. Then gaze at the paramount wonder standing guard over Svaneti – Ushba! This is Svaneti’s pride and the passion of many mountaineers. Any person having climbed Ushba is regarded with extreme awe and considered a symbol of courage and strength.
Misha Khergiani climbed several peaks during his life but his route on the famous Ushba’s Mirror remains a legend to this day. The famous British alpinist Sir John Hunt organized an expedition to Mount Ushba in the 1950s, before his expedition to Everest. The difficult routes of Ushba have made it into the history of alpinism.
Latali is just twelve kilometers from Mestia. Svans call this place “Paris” because people there are distinguished for their beauty and the towers for their refined architecture.
Mestia enjoys a unique location. Tetnuldi, nicknamed “Queen of Caucasus” by mountain people, can be seen from any point in Mestia. If you go a bit higher, a magnificent panoramic view opens up before you: Ushba, Tetnuldi, Shkhara and nearby Lahili (or Laila), the Tviberi glacier, Mulakhi gorge.
Above Mestia, on the road to Ushguli, you will come across an entirely different landscape. Don’t be lazy; take a walk in Svaneti and at each turn you will enjoy a new and sweeping view in front of you.
They say Ushguli is the highest populated point in Europe. I don’t know how much a part of Europe Ushguli is, but I do know that Ushguli is a true fairytale. From the reality of traveling through such unparalleled nature, you directly enter the Twelfth Century. A large pierced rock at the winter residence of Queen Tamar stands in exactly the same spot it stood during her reign. Inhabitants of Ushguli point to this rock saying: “Queen Tamar tied her horse here…”
Situated between the Svaneti ridge and Mount Shkhara, Ushguli gazes at Lamaria – the church of Mother of God standing against the background of Shkhara. Any family here will receive and host you as a close kin. This is a place which, once visited, draws you back over and over again.
The flight to Svaneti covers this distance in 50 minutes. Fly to Svaneti when necessary, but take that road by car at least once. The experience is tantamount to reading a good book, listening to nice music and seeing an art exhibition. One should see it and feel it – this is a real treasure.