The welcoming southern side of the Caucasus, full of sun and flowering meadows stretching to just below the glaciated peaks of the bordering five-thousanders. Ancient settlements full of stone towers in Svaneti, where time passes slowly. Impassable roads, horses as the main means of transport, herds of cows and ubiquitous dogs. Adventure in the mountains on the border between Europe and Asia.
Under the Shkhara mountain
In the morning it is traditionally clearing up, so I get up early and head towards the highest mountain in Georgia, Shkhara. Along the way I am accompanied by three dogs, an escort that takes some getting used to here. The sun leans into the green hillsides, it is better to stay here a little longer before it rises over the mountains. Of the three dogs, two already left and only one remains with me, he has got used to me and I to him, he lies down a short distance from me.
Side Svaneti range towards Latpari saddle. Low clouds pour over the mountains while the setting sun gives the landscape a pinkish tinge. The mountains here are "only" three thousand meters high, yet a continuous layer of snow covers them.
The highest peaks may be shrouded by clouds, but who would mind when the sun is putting on another one of its spectacles. The valley around the glacier fills with rich orange light, the band gradually widening until it reaches the grassy ridge on the right. I look for a spot where there will be enough flowering rhododendrons and will be possible to see the entire irradiated belt. Panorama of 8 portrait shots, each with 3x exposure bracketing.
Window to Shkara
All evening all the main peaks seem to be hidden from the sunlight by clouds. The clouds are so thick that I practically don't count on the possibility of any of the mountains showing up. And yet, eventually the majestic Shkara itself will break through the veil of cloud and reveal its sunlit peak. At first a little, so I point the camera in its direction, and then the whole irradiated part of the peak appears in the cloud window. This lasts for five, ten seconds at most.
Ribs of the Caucasus
Few things captivate me that evening as much as the play of light and shadow on the opposite slopes. Stunning are not only the glaciated five-thousand peaks somewhere above me, but also the gentle slopes bending down into the valley below. The individual ribs stacked in a row downright invite the sun to unleash a contrasting spectacle.
Valley of Adischala
The moment the sun dips below the cloud cover, the valley glows with a velvety yellow light. There's hardly anything quite like looking across the flowering rhododendron bushes to the valley deep below with river winding its way through the sun-drenched plains. I am fascinated by the individual ribs of the hillside where light and shadow alternate.
Dusk above Ushba
In the evening a thick cloud cover forms. It covers all the highest peaks, only over the Adishi glacir a blue window lingers for a long time. From time to time the clouds part briefly to reveal one of the surrounding mountains. Always just enough to make it obvious that there is a mountain. Still, I keep hoping for good light. To the west, a steady band of cloudless sky holds steady, the sun briefly illuminating the landscape through it. Finally the evening is crowned by moments of extreme contrast when the clouds darken.
I wake up in the morning with anticipation. A faint glow already passes through the tent, but when I peek out of the tent I freeze for a moment, unable to comprehend what I am looking at. High above me looms a great white wall. To the left is the prominent Tetnuldi, then the glacier of Adishi, with the peak of Gistola rising above. Katyntayu and Lakutsa-Laartkol, with the Jangi massif (West, Main and East) to the right of them. The prominent peak on the right is the western peak of Shkhara, the highest mountain of Georgia.
Road to the unknown
The translation of the Georgian name of the mountain Ushba means "Road to the unknown". Looking at its jagged and glaciated peaks, the name seems more than apt. As its most imposing side faces east, with a bit of luck it is possible to watch the first rays of the sun gradually descend down the mountain's slopes. To the far right, a seemingly unremarkable rounded glaciated summit peeks out - this is Elbrus, the highest peak in the entire Caucasus.
Ushba at dawn
There is no more characteristic mountain for Svaneti region than the two-summit Ushba. It is far from the highest Caucasus mountains, reaching "only" 4,700 metres, but one look at it is enough to immediately know it is an icon. What the Matterhorn is to Switzerland, Ushba is to Svaneti. Moreover, the mountain often likes to play with the clouds, hiding itself, for a while completely, then its two peaks reappear above the cloud belt.
Valley of the river Enguri
The river winds through the valley and the flowery hillsides rise gently to the glaciated peaks of the central Caucasus. On the southern side of the mountains, the plants are thriving; perhaps nowhere have I seen such richly flowering meadows. The flowers bloom in almost every colour, ranging from yellow and orange, to pink, blue and to purple. The eye can hardly process such a flood of colour.
In te valley of stone towers
The sun leaves the valley, the shadows soften, but the yellowish glow persists. A view of the lower part of Ushguli, specifically the village of Chazashi and the Murkmeli at the back. Arguably the most perfect example of the Svan towers. The towers taper towards the top, mostly topped by a surviving defensive position. Some are leaning, with flowers growing through the masonry, but nothing can detract from their beauty while they are still standing.
The highest permanently inhabited settlement in the Caucasus, the destination of the trek. In fact, five villages known by a single name - Ushguli. A distinctive view towards the glaciated slopes of Georgia's highest mountain, Shkhar peeking above stone towers. Evening brings the traditional clouds, but remnants of colour remain in the landscape. With the peak hidden in the clouds, the scene takes on a more dramatic feel.
The nights in the Caucasus often seem to be cloudy. Only in the morning does the desired clearing sometimes come. In Ushguli, I finally get to see it, although remnants of clouds still float across the sky. No sign of distant light smog, the night is really dark here. Except for the settlement of Ushguli that is disgustingly lit up, perhaps to compensate for the lack of electricity from the previous day. I find more or less the only acceptable composition with this illuminated tower, with all direct light sources hidden behind hillside.
It is only at the very end of the valley that the first glaciated peaks finally appear. How breathtaking are the white mountains above the green hillsides! Katyntau, Lakutsa-Laartkol and Jangi get closer and higher with every step. Jangi, the white massif on the right, already exceeds an altitude of five thousand metres.
Above the settlement stand the remains of an old tower. I wonder what its fate is, who built it, and why it is so far from the rest of the village. Horses graze around the tower, the hillside above the tower is illuminated by the contrasting afternoon sun. I like the central composition, framing the tower with blooming flowers. As the sun sinks, the valley fills with shadow and the scene loses its cheerful afternoon colour.
Blossoming meadows, solitary trees and deep valleys, such are the lower parts of the Greater Caucasus. I sit in the grass and watch the clouds drift across the sky, their shadow spilling over the terrain. I wait for the afternoon sun to brighten the flowers and stretch the shadows even further. Horses graze around, free and unconcerned.
Arrival to Adishi
In a narrow valley full of flowering herbs sits the small mountain village of Adishi. From the trail, it is not visible until the last moment behind the terrain break, when the first old towers appear. The meadows above the settlement are bursting with colour, with horses, goats and cows grazing freely in the afternoon sun. The glaciated border mountains are not yet visible from here; it is not easy to imagine the peaks some three kilometres higher.
The main centre of Svanetia - Mestia. Like many smaller Svan settlements, Mestia is full of ancient stone towers scattered among the buildings. One of the best views of the town is from the hillside slopes rising to the south of the town. I have this spot scouted out ahead of time, so when the towers light up as dusk falls, I've been already waiting here.