As an avid hiker, I recognize that there are beautiful trails throughout the U.S. But because I am also an ardent traveler, I love to explore distant lands, experience different cultures, trying unique foods, and challenging my brain to learn a new monetary system and some rudimentary words in a foreign language. Whenever possible then, I strive to combine my passion for hiking with this yearning for travel.
I’m often asked how I’m able to travel on a frugal budget. The answer: FREE MILES! I find them (via special offers on credit cards), I accumulate them, I use them! Traveling within my meager means often translates into less appealing red-eye flights, with long layovers in airports. But I’m so excited for each new adventure that I have taught myself to sleep on planes, trains and airport floors.
Last winter, I started researching a new backpacking destination and plugged various countries into the Skyscanner search engine in order to receive weekly fare alerts. Many months passed before a flight popped up that fit within my free mile budget. And that is how I found myself on a plane to Tbilisi, Georgia, last June.
I did some online research of Georgia in addition to borrowing Lonely Planet travel guides from the library, so I knew that I wanted to end up along the border of Russia and backpack the upper Caucasus Mountains between the Caspian and Black Seas.
Because I’m not a fan of big cities, I was ready to escape Tbilisi after the first days spent exploring some historical sites. English is not widely spoken in Georgia, but with the use of my handy Google Translate app, along with some amusing pantomiming and hand gestures, I was able to procure a ticket on the night train headed north (sharing a mixed-gender sleeping berth of four bunks).
Arriving in Mestia, I was blown away by the many stone towers that remain standing throughout the Svaneti region of northern Georgia. Built in the 11th century, these five-story towers were once used as protection against invaders and feuding neighbors. Given that my experience with the Georgian population was one of warmth and welcome, it was puzzling to imagine their past once riddled with distrust and fear.
In many ways, the views in the Caucasus Mountains paralleled what I’d seen in the Alps ... but at a much more affordable rate. My 12-hour train ride to the Caucasus only cost about $7 USD, my meals were never more than $3-4 apiece, and guesthouses where I slept when not in my tent ran about $5-7/night — and included both dinner and breakfast. (Switzerland cannot begin to compare to these prices!)
Backpacking these mountains at the end of June, I hit the magic window when the snow had melted, the wildflowers were abundant, but the oppressive heat and pesky summer bugs were still at bay.
Bread is a staple throughout Georgia, and as a carb-lover, I was in heaven! Each day, I enjoyed delicious homemade breads filled with cheeses, vegetables or diced potatoes. (I’m vegetarian so avoided the meat options.) There was a bakery in one rural hamlet where I bought a huge slab of Barbari (Persian flatbread), hot from a clay oven for the equivalent of about 25 cents USD. Yum!
The trail I backpacked meandered through small villages each day. I didn’t need to carry much food, as there were daily opportunities to pick up a loaf of freshly made bread, a variety of cheeses, and fresh fruits. At night, I found a secluded spot off the trail in which to pitch my tent, enjoying the dehydrated soups I had brought from home, cooked atop my backpacking stove. One of my favorite nights was spent falling asleep to the rumble of a nearby glacier as it heaved and calved under a dazzling starlit night.
I had camped beside this glacier, so as to cross its frigid river first thing in the morning, when it would be less treacherous to ford. At first light then, I packed up my tent, ate some leftover bread with cheese, then slipped on my trail runners to cross the thigh-high turbulent water.
The river was biting cold, rendering my feet numb within seconds. After reaching the far bank, I clomped clumsily down the trail, my feet feeling heavy as wooden bricks. When I glanced up, my suffering was quickly alleviated though by a jaw-dropping view of dawn breaking behind the glacier.
The stories in a matriarch’s face
Most households in Georgia seemed to contain extended families living under one roof. In the guesthouse where I stayed in Ushguli, I watched the family matriarch arise at 5 a.m. to milk their cow. Her weathered face seemed to hold a thousand stories, and I was sorry that my inability to communicate with her prevented me from hearing any of them.
Despite the language barrier, I was greeted warmly as I passed through each village, with locals calling out and waving me over for a visit. Because backpacking foreigners are still a rarity in Georgia, I was treated as a novelty and often invited to join a family for a cup of chai (tea) on their front porch.
With the pristine beauty found on these hiking trails in the Caucasus, I worry that the tranquility, affordability and congeniality of this region may soon be replaced with a crowded, expensive Switzerland-type experience. While journeying to the Caucasus Mountains, I witnessed several primitive roads being bulldozed to enable tourist buses to one day carry visitors to view fragile alpine lakes and glaciers, previously reached only by foot or horseback.
I’m grateful that my available air miles enabled me to have this unique experience in Georgia, to enjoy its intriguing culture, its delicious breads, its gracious people — before these traditions and natural beauty succumb to tourism.