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Trekking in the Caucasus Mountains: The Chaukhi Massif, Georgia’s Dolomites
Length: 34.0km, Creator time taken: 100h44m, Ascent: 1766m, Descent: 2542m
Places:Start at Lon 44.7443, Lat 42.58, end at Lon 44.928, Lat 42.5107 17km SE from Start Logged as completed by 1
Mention Georgia and most people automatically think of the State of Georgia in the USA, but there’s another arguably more exciting and alluring Georgia several thousand kilometres to the east…
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s independence in 1991, few in the west had ever heard of this country. Situated in the mighty Caucasus Mountains on a narrow bridge of land between the Black and Caspian Seas, it occupies a unique geopolitical space betwixt Europe and Asia, not quite east or west. Because of its strategic location on lucrative east-west trade routes, Georgia has long been a bone of contention between various powers. Despite invasions by Mongols, Persians, Ottomans, and more recently, Russians, this resilient little country has nonetheless managed to preserve its own language, culture, alphabet and Orthodox Christianity.
We had planned to visit Georgia in 2008 but were thwarted by the sudden outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War. Despite this upheaval and post-communist secessionist strife in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia is gradually opening up to tourism, and, in the wake of the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, is aspiring to join the EU and NATO. This year we judged the time was finally ripe for a visit and booked a flight with Lufthansa from Dublin via Munich to Tbilisi, the capital, which we used as a base for several hikes and treks in the northeast and northwest of the country.
Getting around requires some detailed and complicated planning, but the local buses and shared taxi-vans (marshrutkas) are cheap (€2-€3 for a 3 hour trip) and trains even better value (€12 for an overnight sleeper). The food is truly excellent (generally costing about a 1/3rd of that in Western Europe), but the wine is the unsung star of the show (the oldest evidence in the world of wine-making was recently found at an archaeological dig near Tbilisi). Saperavi reds soon became firm favourites of ours!
The first part of our three week stay took us to the north-eastern Kazbegi area which abuts the restless Russian Federation Republics of North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya, where simmering post-communist secessionist troubles periodically make the news. The hub of the area is the sprawling town of Stepantsminda (formerly Kazbegi) 157 km from Tbilisi which lies on the Military Highway that runs north from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. It’s a gateway for those climbing the dormant stratovolcano, Mount Kazbek, which at 5,047 metres is one of the highest mountains in Georgia.
The main tourist attraction is the fourteenth century Gergeti Trinity Church which is dwarfed by the enormous conical hulk of Mount Kazbek in whose shadow it sits. It has become something of a symbol for modern Georgia, overshadowed as it is by its larger neighbours, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and is one of the most photographed sights in the country. At an altitude of 2,170 metres, it’s reached by a truly atrocious unmade zig-zag road which we negotiated in a battered up old Lada, which was a pretty unforgettable experience! You can also walk up one of several trails to it and continue higher to see the Gergeti Glacier. From Stepantsminda we did a day hike through the geological wonderland of the Truso Valley near the border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which is currently off-limits, and a wild camping trek over the Chaukhi Massif, the route of which is described below. This multi-day trek traverses the rocky heart of a scenic landscape dubbed ‘Georgia’s Dolomites’, and climbs to over 3,300 metres.
It starts at the village of Juta some 20km SW from Stepantsminda. At an elevation of over 2,000 metres this small village sits at the confluence of two rivers at the end of a long dirt road that winds its way up the picturesque Sno Valley. We arranged for a minibus to drop us there.
From Juta’s muddy streets where cows and pigs roam freely, a well-worn trail climbs steeply upwards past a campsite and hostel, into lush alpine meadows bristling with an incredible array of wildflowers. The pathway continues south and climbs gently above the left side of the Chaukhistskali River which wriggles its way through the bottom of the malachite-green valley at the head of which the tips of snow-streaked mountains soar into the sky.
This section along the river valley was busy with day-trippers from Stepantsminda. Further up the valley there is a small makeshift café by a lake selling light refreshments. Most day-trippers return to Juta at the café.
After the café the route turns sharply to the east along the right bank of a small river and heads steeply straight up into the ribs of the slate-grey Chaukhi Massif which looms ahead like a giant Baroque pipe organ. The pathway is indistinct and the terrain densely vegetated in places and quite rough underfoot. We decided to camp overnight at an altitude of 2,900 metres on an incredible grassy promontory below the pass, where we hoped to get some good timelapse photography of the Chaukhi Massif that lay directly opposite. Next day, a steep climb up a shaly rock face brought us into a huge corrie still dappled with large patches of dirty snow. This area is only passable from mid-June onwards for the few short months of summer. From here, two routes to the Chaukhi Pass are available: one that sweeps up an arm of the corrie, or a viciously steep zig-zag path which goes straight up a steep scree slope to the corrie rim. We chose the latter.
The zig-zag path led to a notch in the corrie rim (3,370 metres). The rock is razor thin here and care must be taken not to slip and tumble several hundred metres down into a neighbouring corrie. Through the swirling cloud we glimpsed several snow covered peaks of the Greater Caucasus, tantalising flashes of blue glaciers, jewel-coloured lakes, and endless waves of hills receding into Chechnya and Ingushetia that looked as if they had been draped in crumpled green velvet. We planned to camp beside one of the three Abudelauri Lakes (named Blue, Green and White) some 900 metres below. These are accessed via a long, grassy ridge sweeping down from the Chaukhi Pass which we reached after an airy scramble along a knife edge arête. From the pass we endured a long, and in places, very steep descent along an indistinct trail that zig-zags over loose scree, then stubbly grass which gave way to lush, thigh-high vegetation interspersed with rhododendron, the branches of which lay in wait to trap a weary ankle. Walking poles certainly came in handy!
The Blue and Green Lakes are closest to the descent route from the Chaukhi Pass and we camped for two nights by the gorgeous aquamarine Blue Lake which is the more picturesque of the two. A highlight of our stay there was watching hyperactive stoats darting among the boulders near our tent!
From our camp we explored the Chaukhi Glacier and the White Lake impounded by huge chaotic deposits of moraine. We followed a faint trail of sorts for 8km up-valley over steep banks of loose moraine and boulders. This ended in an enormous amphitheatre of barren rock surrounded by huge limestone blades of rock thrusting skywards and a crooked finger of ice tumbling down to the teardrop-silver lake. It’s known as the White Lake because its water is chock-full of sediment from the glacier. On the fourth day we descended from the Blue Lake through lush alpine meadows where handsome brown cows grazed contentedly (queue the arrival of horseflies!), to the village of Roshka. We found a good camping spot in a meadow above this isolated settlement. Next day we took the steeply descending unpaved track that meets the unsealed highway running through a gorge to the village of Shatili which is close to the Chechen border. We had hoped to take a trail on the other side of the valley that avoided this track, but it was choked with giant hogweed which it’s best to avoid at all costs, as skin that has been in contact with its sap will blister when exposed to sunlight. In the gorge the temperature was far higher, and the plod along the very dusty road was somewhat monotonous, so we were delighted when a local man pulled up in his jeep and offered us a lift the last few kilometres to the small village of Khorsa where we were staying at a guesthouse run by one of his relatives.
The Khorsha Guesthouse, a large wooden two-storied building surrounded by vegetable gardens, cattle sheds, beehives and a vineyard, offers a quirky homestay experience. The rooms are rather basic and there’s only one shower. But the food, ambience, and warm Georgian welcome make it memorable for all the right reasons. Its dining room is decked out in colourful local costumes, rustic hand-carved wooden furniture, bearskins, hunting trophies, and the stunning artwork of the proprietors. The food is all home grown and the owners make their own wine too!
Early the following morning we caught a local bus for the 3 hour trip back to Tbilisi for the grand sum of two euro each. It was quite an experience in a country with roads so poor that distances on a map have little bearing on driving times! The rear suspension was shot so we felt every bump in the road; there were no seatbelts; the driver drove erratically and dangerously like most of his fellow Georgians and we were crammed in like sardines among local people and several enormous digger tyres!
This was an absolutely first class trekking and wild camping experience, where we were totally free to commune with nature in wide open spaces unfettered by barbed wire fences, along rugged trails where we seldom encountered another soul during this, the peak season for trekking.
Read the blog of this trek and others on http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog and see the video on https://youtu.be/g2uyKtrThSA
Uploaded on: Tue, 21 Nov 2017 (21:26:31) Trackback: https://mountainviews.ie/track/3659/ To download GPS tracks you must be enrolled and logged in. See "Login or enrol", top right - quick and easy.
Note: ALL information such as Ascent, Length and Creator time taken etc should be regarded as approximate. The creator's comments are opinions and may not be accurate or still correct.
Your time to complete will depend on your speed plus break time and your mode of transport. For walkers: Naismith's rule, a rough and often inaccurate estimate, suggests a time of 9h 44m + time stopped for breaks
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