Caucasus Mountain Wilderness - Ushguli to Ghebi in Racha (Svaneti, Georgia)
Aktualisiert: 5. Feb 2019
via Tsana and Zeshko
The trek from Ushguli to Ghebi connecting the regions of Svaneti and Racha is a true wilderness experience in the Great Caucasus. It combines beautiful mountain views with a challenging trekking adventure. While the mountain scenery is not as spectacular as on the popular Mestia to Ushguli trail, the sense of remoteness and mountain solitude is much more intense on the way from Ushguli to the Gehbi. If you are short on time or want to avoid walking on the dirt road, you can also take a taxi to Zeskho via the Zargar Pass and start your hike from there. However, we enjoyed the walk as the dirt road is very small, offers beautiful mountain views and there are usually only very few cars.
The trek offers wonderful views of the Great Caucasus. In the mornings and evenings, the atmosphere at Sasvano Lake is magical (see pictures below). The real highlight, however, is the mountain/wilderness adventure and solitude, that you can experience on this (still) very little used trail.
ITINERARY (29.9. - 02.10.2018):
Ushguli - Tsana via Zagar Pass (20 km; ⬆ 530 m; ⬇ 950 m)
Tsana - Tskhenistskali River via Zeskho (21km; ⬆ 1000 m; ⬇ 1000 m)
Tskhenistskali River - Sasvano Lakes (14.6 km; ⬆ 1098 m; ⬇ 304 m)
Sasvano Lakes - Ghebi (25.6 km; ⬆ 163 m; ⬇ 1459 m)
Accomodation: You will need to carry your own tent. There is accommodation in Tsana/Zeskho (Day 1) and in Ghebi (Day 4).
Permits: You have to register with the military at the Zeshko Alpine station to enter the boarder area to Russia.
Food: You need to bring your own supplies. We brought instant food from Germany, but you will also find a limited collection of dried food (mainly pasta and soups) in Mestia. In Ushguli the choice is very limited but you can get pasta, bread, cheese etc. In Tsana there is only a single guesthouse, which sells (Gerogian) fast food as well as bread and cheese. Ghebi is a bigger village (compared to Ushguli) and you can get basic supplies. We recommend to bring your gas cartridges from Tbilisi (and check them before usage).
Maps: The commercially available geoland maps are of poor quality and often outdated – i.e. many trails marked on the map still seem to stem from Soviet times and have since been washed away or overgrown by dense vegetation. We recommend to use e.g. AndroMaps in combination with a navigation app such as the freely available Locus Map. Don’t forget to bring your (big) power bank, though. Our gps-log of the section Zeshkho to Ghebi can be downloaded here: Day 2, Day 3, Day 4
Difficulty: This is not an easy one. To make this trek enjoyable you should be in good physical condition and have experience with long distance trekking with a tent. Some sections are steep scree slopes or riverbanks. One of the main challenges is navigation. While the Transcaucasian Trail Project put some waymarks, these are very sparse in places. We think it’s best to use a smartphone with a navigation app (such as Locus) or a GPS device. Even with such devices it is sometimes a little bit tricky to find the best path. When we walked the trek, one of the rivers had changed its course and we had to make a significant detour (Day 4).
Day 1 – Ushguli to Tsana via Zagar Pass
Difference in altitude: 530 m ⬆ and 950 m ⬇
Distance: 20 km
Our time: walking 5 h – breaks 1 h
GPS-log: Just walk along the dirt road. You don't need a gps device here. :)
This section connects the classical Mestia to Ushguli trek with the route from Svaneti to Racha. The trek follows the road dirt road between Ushguli and Tsana. For a dirt-road trek it is a surprisingly nice walk. The first part of the road leads up to Zagar Pass and you pass through alpine meadows. In autumn, the people from Ushguli harvest hey from these meadows to feed their animals during the winter. After the pass, the road descends into an impressive valley and in good weather conditions you get nice views of the surrounding mountains with their glaciers. On the way down you pass through Khoruldashi. When we walked through the hamlet at the beginning of October the village was deserted. Finally, you reach Tsana. In 2018, house N7 was the only guesthouse (for reservations call +995-790-73-27-52 or +995-551-51-63-75). It provides a nice but basic shelter. The owner Gela and his sister are lovely.
Day 2 – Tsana to Tskhenistskali River via Zeskho
Difference in altitude: ~1000 m ⬆ and ~1000 m down ⬇
Distance: 21.1 km
Our time: walking 6:30 h – breaks 3:30 h
GPS-log: download here (from Zeshko; dirt road from Tsana to Zeshko)
From Tsana we followed the main road for about 2 km to a junction, where the road to Zeskho branches off to the left. After another 3 - 4 km uphill, we reached the small village of Zeskho. The village mainly consists of a cooperative of potato farmers. We were greeted enthusiastically by the potato farmers, who gave us fresh sweet chestnuts and small pears as a snack. The farmers told us that accommodation was also available, but we couldn’t have a look and are not completely sure about that. There is also a board with information on the section of the Transcaucasian Trail from Zeskho to Ghebi.
About a kilometre after Zeshko, we passed the old Zeshko Alpine Station and saw people waving at us from inside the camp. After a short discussion, we decided to walk over to see what they were up to. It turned out that the alpine station now serves as an army checkpoint and the soldiers (they were 5 or 6 soldiers!) informed us that we had to register with them to obtain permission to enter the border area with Russia. We had to show our passports and the process took surprisingly long (about an hour), but eventually they let us pass.
From Zeskho the dirt road follows the river and crosses a tributary. Just after the tributary the trek follows a dirt road which branches off to the right. There are a few shepherds huts close to the road. When you enter the bottom of a valley you will recognise a newly constructed path to your left. This is the new route across the pass, which is currently under construction by the Transcaucasian Trail Project. While the new route will definitely be the nicer option compared to the current trail, not even half of the way up was finished in autumn 2018. You can still use the path and continue upwards from the point where the construction work has stopped. However, in the last section up to the ridge you need to fight your way through dense rhododendron bushes and undergrowth. In addition, the descent from the ridge to the actual pass is quite steep and can be tricky/dangerous. We would therefore recommend to follow the old route at the bottom of the valley until the construction work has finished on this section.
At some point on your way up, you have to enter one of the gullies, which lead up to the ridge and the pass at the end of the valley. It is important to pick the gully on the right side for the ascent (in hiking direction), as the terrain close to the top of the ridge is very steep and traversing to the pass can be quite dangerous/difficult. Close to the pass there was a steel cable, when we climbed the pass in 2018. This makes the last meters up to the pass a lot easier, but check its stability, since it was only attached to a small birch tree at the top.
The descent on the other side of the ridge is not as steep as the ascent and you simply have to follow the riverbed to the Tskhenistskali River for about 2 km (which felt a lot longer) until you reach the designated camping area on the riverbank. The place is beautifully located in the valley and has a strong feel of remoteness and wilderness to it.
Day 3 - Tskhenistskali River to Sasvano Lakes
Difference in altitude: 1098 m ⬆ and 304 m ⬇
Distance: 14.6 km
Our time: walking 5 h – breaks 1:40 h
GPS-log: download here
From the camp at the banks of the Tskhenistskali River there are two routes to get to the Sasvano lakes. We took the officially marked route, which follows the Lafuri river. We think this is the easier and shorter option. The alternative route along the Tskhenistskali River (described here, Caucasus Trekking) might be slightly more scenic. However, you can enjoy the same views on the ‘official’ route by making a small detour and walking to Vatsistsveri Pass.
Close to the camping spot we crossed the Tskhenistskali River and then followed the Lafuri River. For the first half of today’s distance the track follows (dry) riverbeds which was not the most enjoyable part of the trek. For us, wayfinding was quite a challenge in this section. As waymarks are quite sparse and might be washed away in the riverbeds, it is not easy to judge which riverbed to take at junctions. Generally, you should stick more to the left than to the right (in the direction that you are walking) and finally exit one of the dry riverbeds on the right-hand side. Be aware, this point might be tricky to find. When we walked the trek, the way out of the riverbed was almost completely washed away and hard to recognise. If you get too far to the left, the terrain is too steep to reach the ridge. In this section it is advisable to use a GPS device.
After leaving the riverbed you walk up a smaller ridge towards the main ridge. There is a signpost on top of the ridge and the views are simply spectacular. It is worthwhile to take a stroll along the ridge towards Vatsistsveri Pass (about 2 km to the left/north) to enjoy the views of the surrounding mountain scenery.
From the signpost at the top of the ridge it’s about 2 km more or less along the ridge to the designated camping spot at the second of the Sasvano Lakes (sometimes also called Sasvanostba Lakes or Sasvanotbebi Lakes). This section is a pleasant walk with spectacular views. The Sasvano Lakes are a mystical place to camp – especially at sunset or sunrise, when the surrounding mountains are reflected in the lake. Since the lakes are quite small and standing water it might be a good idea to apply some form of water purification before drinking the water – especially if the trail becomes more popular in the future. There is also another campsite (Bartuzeli) close to the river further on the way to Ghebi (about one hour down) – but it would be a shame to miss the magical atmosphere at Sasvano Lakes at sunset/sunrise.
Day 4 - Sasvano Lakes to Ghebi
Difference in altitude: 163 m ⬆ and 1459 m down⬇
Distance: 25.6 km
Estimated time: walking 7-8 h (we got a lift on the last section)
GPS-log: download here
In the morning, we started walking again with wonderful weather and amazing views. The views on the last stage are not as spectacular but the trail is still a challenge. The path goes down the ridge and then keeps on the right side of the Rioni River. Here you can also find a good camping spot. On the way down, you can sometimes find the remains of an old dirt road which - in most places - has long been overgrown or washed away. Downhill orientation was a lot easier than on our ascents the days before and we found more waymarks. Nevertheless, the rivers in the Racha region are quite wild and the tributaries of the Rioni River seem to constantly keep changing their course. One of the tributaries had cut a approx. 4 m deep impassable gully through the original route and created a huge mud field next to the Rioni River, which forced us to take a detour through dense undergrowth.
From the point where you reach the Rioni River it’s about 6 km to Brili - the first (summer) settlement on the way from Zeskho. When we arrived in autumn 2018, only an old couple was present in the village. There is also a sign for a designated camping area and a camping spot is marked on the map of the TCT-project at the beginning of the trail. However, the place is quite inhospitable. The smell and the muddy ground clearly indicated that this was rather a spot for the domestic pigs of the villagers than for trekkers. Moreover, the drunk old man (of the couple in the village) was trying to take/steal one our trekking poles from us. Fortunately, he was drunk and old and we could quickly continue with our stick and without any major confrontations.
For the remaining section from Brili to Ghebi, the trail follows a dirt road on the riverbank. The valley of the Rioni River is beautiful, but not as spectacular as the other days in the high mountains. Unfortunately, it started pouring when we walked this last section, but we were lucky enough to catch a ride on a truck of woodcutters. With yet another experience of Georgian hospitality, the unpleasant encounter with the drunk in Brili was quickly forgotten.
Ghebi is a pleasant town with nice views of the mountains. There is not much touristic infrastructure. For accommodation best ask around for Sergo (+995-59-94-42-92; only Georgian and Russian). He has a nice small guesthouse and great food. In 2018 we paid around 50 GEL per person for a nice double room with breakfast and dinner.
How to get to and from the trek
In our opinion the best option is to go to Mestia and then walk the trek Mestia to Ushguli. :) The description on how to get to Mestia can be found on the bottom of the trek description. The taxi form Mesita to Ushguli is quite expensive (160 – 200 GEL). From the end of the trek in Ghebi you can take a taxi to Oni (60-80 GEL), where you can find Maschrudkas to Tblisi and Kutaisi.
A page with heaps of information on trekking in the Caucasus and Georgia:
Website of the Transcaucasian Trail project: