My time in Georgia is drawing to an end. Three months, you might think, is sufficient time to spend in such a small country, but you’d be wrong. There are so many hikes I won’t have the time to do, so many places I won’t have the time to visit. All that means, though, is that I’ll just have to come back someday…
There is no such sense of solitude as that which we experience upon the silent and vast elevations of great mountains. Lifted high above the level of human sounds and habitations, among the wild expanses and colossal features of Nature, we are thrilled in our loneliness with a strange fear and elation – an ascent above the reach of life’s expectations or companionship, and the tremblings of a wild and undefined misgivings.J. Sheridan Le Fanu
But that made choosing where to go for these last few days particularly difficult. Which hike should be my last in Georgia? After the brutal slog from Shatili to Omalo, I felt pretty satisfied with the number of hill fortresses I’d explored, so I opted for something focused more on nature. After a chance recommendation swap on Instagram, I settled on hiking to Udziro Lake in the Racha region.
We set off at the pleasant time of 9:00 from Gallery Guesthouse in Oni — Andrei, Nika, and I. Andrei was joining me for the day, and Nika — a member of the family who owns the guesthouse — was being a rock star and driving us to the start of the trek. I’d adjusted my plan for the day based on Nika’s advice: the trek starting from Shovi and ending back in Glola was not possible, so we would have to start in Glola, hike to the lake, then return the same way we’d come.
Other elements of my plan had changed as well, such as the food I’d brought along. I’d planned on my usual hiking diet of muesli and dried fruits, but Nika’s mom, Elene, had other ideas. She sent us up with a bag full of fresh vegetables, home-baked bread, cheese, and hardboiled eggs. We had to secretly leave the bottle of wine she gave us with Nika, since neither Andrei or I felt like carrying it up the mountain.
Some treks start off slow and leisurely, ramping up in intensity as the route progresses. The hike from Shatili to Omalo was like that, with most of the first day easily walkable on level roads. Hiking to Udziro Lake was the polar opposite. From the minute we stepped into the old forest behind the village of Glola, the elevation gain began.
The grueling ascent when hiking to Udziro Lake was made easier by the cool shade of the forest and the twittering birdsong ringing through its canopy. We kept a steady pace, only taking a break when we drew near to the treeline and the meadows beyond.
Stepping out of the forest was like entering the closet door leading to Narnia — it led us into a completely different world. A forest can have a smothering effect, obliterating your awareness of the world beyond as you wander through its depths. The view from the meadow was magnificent, drawing gasps from both of us as we emerged blinking into the sunlight. Craggy peaks surrounded us on all sides, and we spun our way through the field.
The vegetation changed after leaving the forest, and we were treated to Georgia in bloom as we made our way further into the alpine zone. Rhododendrons and tons of wildflowers beautified the slopes; Nika would tell us later that in August, hikers can find blueberries and raspberries growing wild along the trail.
The route we took while hiking to Udziro Lake included one ‘river’ crossing, but we were hot and tired, and being forced to take our shoes off and wade through an icy alpine stream wasn’t much of a trial. Truly one of those times where ‘it hurts so good’.
We chose the valley above the stream for our lunch spot, using the chance to take Andrei’s drone for a spin and shovel some food down our throats. But I’m not going to show you pictures of the valley or footage from the drone just yet… keep reading!
Climbing out of the valley netted us our first conquered pass, crossing over a small ridge jutting spine-like from the valley floor. We made our way up the adjacent valley, navigating snowfields which had yet to melt and spotting a rare archvi (a wild goat) on the hillside ahead of us. We would’ve totally missed it, had it not whistled shrilly when it spotted us.
Eventually, our progress stalled as we reached a point at which snow covered the trail. The snow was wet, prone to packing, and extremely slick, so neither of us felt comfortable crossing. Our only option was to scramble up the hillside, which we did slowly and carefully. The last few meters were basically bouldering, and it was somewhat shakily that we finally crested the ridge and claimed our second pass.
Pro Tip: If you run into a similar situation, the slope to the left of the trail (when ascending) is a little less precarious than the slope to the right.
The view which unfolded before us was breathtaking. Snow-covered peaks loomed all around us — from the jagged fin of Dolomisistsveri which had guided us up the valleys to the oddly-shaped Katistsvera peak. Can anyone guess the name’s translation from Georgian? I’ll send a postcard to whoever gets it right ;-). (Except you, Nino!)
A glance towards the last pass of the trek revealed an unfortunate truth — the way was still blocked with snow. After my somewhat harrowing experience crossing Atsunta Pass on my previous trek, I had no desire to attempt something similar or *shudder* even more difficult.
I would be returning to Glola, it seemed.
Decision made, there was nothing more to do than lay down on top of the ridge and watch Andrei fly his drone one last time, giving us a bird’s-eye view of Udziro Lake and the surrounding terrain. It was captivating. You can take a look for yourself in the video below!
It happened there at the top, a period of reflection as I realized that I had fulfilled my wish for this trip. While I have not hiked as much as I’d hoped, I’ve pushed myself to new levels and overcome both physical and mental barriers along the way. Travel — to me — has always been about personal growth, and I do that by challenging myself. It’s exhilarating to break through perceived limits, and travel lets me do that regularly.
Andrei and I descended quickly, as he had plans to hike back down to Glola that day, and we were losing daylight. We parted ways at our lunch spot from earlier in the day, and I set about making camp. The timing was good — just as I got my tent staked in and bag inside, a few droplets of rain and some moderate gusts of wind tried to put a damper on the evening.
The weather can be such a tease, and those few droplets of rain were the only ones to fall. The sun returned in minutes, and I found a spot on the hilltop to stretch out and read a book as the sun sank closer to the ridgeline. What a perfect day…
The next day was a slog, almost entirely downhill back to Glola on grass and packed earth still slick with morning dew. I fell once and came close to doing so several other times. But I made it down to the river and called Nika to pick me up. It was time for more amazing home-cooked food and Georgian hospitality at the Gallery Guesthouse!
Pro Tip: To get GPS treks for this trek, check out this post on Trekking in the Caucasus!
As hiking achievements go, hiking to Udziro Lake wasn’t one of my rousing successes. Not only did I fail to finish the full route, but we didn’t even make it to the titular feature — the lake! But technical failures aside, it was a fantastic adventure, with just the right amount of challenge, the company of a new friend, and enough natural splendor to give me perma-grin for the next few weeks.
Georgia, I’m gonna miss you.