In her kitchen high above the Nakra valley, our host Maia slides another batch of khachapuri bread into the oven. The flat, cheese-filled loaves are ubiquitous throughout Georgia – from the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea – but Maia's version, made with tangy cheese from the farm and baked in a traditional wood-fired oven, or pecha, is the best I've yet tasted. Could it be the 25 kilometres I've just hiked through forests and over mountain passes? "Well," says our group leader Paul Stephens, chopping a bunch of fresh herbs at the kitchen table, "Georgian home cooking is special. You won't find anything like this in restaurants."
It’s the second night of our hiking trip through the Svaneti region of northwest Georgia. I am here with three intrepid Norwegians to “beta test” a newly opened section of a hiking trail that will one day, perhaps, stretch from the Black Sea to the Caspian. But the hiking is starting to feel almost secondary to the feasts – a means to increasingly indulgent ends.
A mix-up over dates meant that our hosts had not been expecting us. Unflustered, the family sprang into action, rearranging beds and turning out a meal that could easily have fed 20. “Being a good host in Georgia means providing more food than your guests can possibly finish,” explains Stephens as ever more dishes are squeezed on to the table in front of us.
He first came to Georgia as an American Peace Corps volunteer in 2005, but his interest in the region goes back further still. "When I was 10, my older brother brought me back a sheepskin hat from the Caucasus," he explains. "I didn't even know where Georgia was, but I guess you could say it all started there."
It sparked an obsession that saw him spend summer after summer exploring the remote valleys and peaks of the Greater Caucasus. “I’d spoken to guys who hiked here in the 1970s,” he tells me. “The idea had been floating around for a while: is it possible to walk through the Caucasus from the Black Sea to the Caspian?” Along with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Jeff Haack, he gave this idea a name: the Transcaucasian Trail. “When Jeff and I first talked about it, we kind of thought we’d just walk right across the Caucasus,” he chuckles. “It didn’t quite turn out that way.”
The challenges of constructing a 1,500-kilometre walking route across some of the most politically unstable mountains in the world soon became apparent. “We’re focusing on one section at a time”, Stephens explains, avoiding, for now, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Azerbaijan. “These are all challenging areas,” he continues, “but 25 years ago the Caucasus was a relatively stable place. And 25 years from now, things may well be different again.’
Early next morning, Maia is already kneading the next batch of dough. A storm from the Black Sea hit overnight and the rain outside is torrential. It provides a welcome respite for her husband, Shota, and his brother Avto from their gruelling work scything hay in the mountain meadows. “You can’t cut hay in weather like this,” Shota says, settling down by the stove while a marmalade tabby cat weaves through his legs. A perfect excuse for another feast, then.
It's after 1 o'clock when we finally leave, full to bursting with more khachapuris, sour cherry conserve and tangy yoghurt freshly made by their son, Becka. We set off along a trail built by Transcaucasian volunteers last summer. "It's already getting overgrown," sighs Stephens, brushing through the sopping undergrowth, "we really need more hikers to start using it." Though some locals use the trails for travelling between villages or for hunting trips, tourists are virtually unknown in these valleys. Svaneti's tourist boom has left many areas untouched, mostly revolving around the town of Mestia, the region's transport hub, and the Unesco-listed town of Ushguli.
Our Georgian guide Ana Dekanosidze, who grew up in Tbilisi, hopes that the Transcaucasian Trail can change that. "The transformation in Mestia shows what's possible," she tells me. Svaneti was a popular Soviet hiking destination, but the collapse of Georgia's economy in the 1990s and ensuing instability put the area off-limits. "I remember ten years ago, there were no tourists there. Now it's full of guesthouses and restaurants and young people are returning. The other villages want to see tourists, too."
None are more eager for visitors than our next host, Valeri Vibliani. He and his wife Maro are the last inhabitants of the village of Kilchukudashi, which once had a population of 50. Connected to the outside world via a winding dirt track frequently blocked by snow in winter and mudslides in summer, they have a precarious existence. As he shows me to my room, Valeri proudly points out an enormous bear skin, which he hunted himself. He no longer shoots bears, he quickly adds, because of the 1,000 Georgian lari (Dh1,509) government fines. 'There are so many bears and wolves here," he says clicking his tongue, "and we're not even allowed to defend ourselves now."
Valeri’s hope is that tourists can bring life back to the village. He has erected a plywood sign on the side of his barn with “Family Hotel” sprayed on it, and is impatiently awaiting the hikers he hopes the TCT will bring past his door. In the meantime, we enjoy the full force of his hospitality – and stories. ‘There’s a man in the next village who is 148,” he says casually, sprinkling his potatoes with the region’s secret ingredient, Svan salt, a blend of rock salt, herbs and spices. “We are strong people. We had a visit from a Norwegian pro skier a few winters back, and he couldn’t keep up with me!”
The next morning the clouds break and the sky seems to have been scoured clean. We can now see the magnificent ring of peaks around Valeri’s house, capped with the first fresh snow of winter. We set off, laden with apples from the orchard, for our hotel in the village of Becho. We are getting closer to Mestia now and as we work our way up Bak Pass, we pass the first hikers we’ve seen all week. We also see our first Svan tower. These square defensive structures are found nowhere else in Georgia and tell of the blood feuds once fought between the Svan clans.
We pause by a tiny chapel below the pass. The grey fang of Mount Ushba, Svaneti’s most dramatic and dangerous peak, towers over us. The Georgians have a habit, bordering on obsession, of building churches in prominent, inaccessible spots: closer to God perhaps, and further from attackers. This particular slice of heaven, carpeted in buttercup-yellow crocuses, can only be reached by a precipitous footpath from the valley.
The shadows lengthen in the birch forest below us. There is at least an hour of hiking to reach our hotel, where we will return to the world of table service, menus and en suite bathrooms. None of us are in a mood to hurry. "Sometimes it seems a pity to go down from the mountain," says one of the Norwegians, Jon Teigland, putting down his pack. A veteran of two first ascent attempts on Everest, his love of the mountains runs deep. "This is such a beautiful place. I think we can spend a little longer here." For a few precious minutes more, civilisation can wait.