Let me take a post to shamelessly plug the Hanmer Guest House. It was certainly the highlight of our trip and made everything we endured worthwhile. The house is owned and operated by Tony Hanmer and his wife, Lali. They were helpful in organizing our trip and their hospitality was, simply put, awesome.
The road from Zugdidi to Mestia is gorgeous. I’d say the highlight of the drive was probably the Enguri Reservoir, which was a fascinating shade of turquoise. Just before you get to Mestia, the highway passes through a region called Etseri, and if you get to Etseri and take a left at the 112 mile marker, you’ll be in a small village called Iskari. The guesthouse is about halfway up the road from the highway to the big stone watchtower. The trip itself was uneventful, although we ran into some snow when we got up nice and high, and we were glad to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle – although snow chains would have been better. Bring snow chains if you go in winter! We ignored Tony’s advice on this matter, and came to regret it.
Dinner the first night was a Chinese-style stir fry (one veggies, one chicken and ginger) with rice and some of Tony’s home-made ajika (a Georgian spicy pepper sauce). This was great, and not at all what we were expecting. We also got to sample some home-made Cointreau – a Mandarin-infused vodka sweetened with sugar syrup. I’ll just stop saying home-made now, because everything we had was home-made – mostly from local products that Tony and Lali grew or bought from their neighbors. I have to say, I’ve always loved the *idea* of eating home-grown and local products, but now having done it for several days, I can say that it is also great in practice.
Our other meals included a chicken/rice/veggie stew, a beef soup, and of course kubdari, a Svan specialty of well-spiced beef baked into bread. We had fresh-baked bread daily, a variety of cakes for desert – and Tony even had a Western drip coffee machine! We also got to have some wine that Lali made with grapes from her family’s land in Kakheti. It was three days of awesome, organic, natural food and beverage.
When we weren’t exploring the region, Tony and Lali kept us entertained. Tony has a nice, brand-new TV which can read a USB drive and play digital videos. In the evenings, we watched some movies and music videos from Tony’s extensive library. Lali taught us a card game which was very hectic and exciting. We conversed about various topics and cultures and exchanged stories from our travels. Tony is a very knowledgeable guide to Svaneti and gave us great tips on where to go and how to get there.
Our rooms were newly renovated, with comfortable beds, new furniture, and heaters. The bathrooms were also newly renovated and had hot and cold running water (although the hot goes out if the power does). Everything was clean and we were very happy with the accommodations.
Our first day in Svaneti, we went to Mestia. The road was snowy and a bit difficult, but we followed the local marshutka (it makes a trip from Iskari to Mestia twice a week) and made it without incident. Mestia has a couple restaurants and stores, a Liberty Bank branch, and a teeny tiny airport. Apparently there is also a hospital, although fortunately we had no occasion to visit it. There is a cultural museum which is supposed to be fantastic, although it was closed the day we went (sad!). The main drag was refaced as part of Misha’s tourism development program, and so looks very shiny and out of place.
From Mestia, it is not a long drive to various ski locations. We visited one and I was tempted to learn to ski, for the first time ever. Kids were doing it! The road up to the ski slopes offered great views, and I took a lot of pictures of snow-covered pine trees. Unfortunately the road was also unplowed and super bumpy.
On the trip back down from Mestia, we failed to make it up the hill to the guesthouse (seriously, bring snow chains!), and had to leave the car parked by the highway and hike up the hill on foot.
On our second day, we lost power because of snow. Power continued to be intermittent throughout the trip, but the guesthouse is well-equipped for dealing with a power outage. We hiked up to the Svan watchtower and took pictures, and then a bit further up to an old wrecked building which used to belong to the local bandit chief, until Misha sent ten helicopters to shoot up the house and burn it down. According to Tony, 600 people attended the funeral, but also life in the area has been much safer since the bandits were, er, disbanded. Such is the contradictory nature of law enforcement actions in Georgia.
It was sort of interesting to see bullet holes in the walls and warped and twisted metal. The whole place reminded me of Ozymandias.
We came back to the guesthouse and helped Tony shovel out some things – the snow had gotten quite ridiculous by that point, and people with insufficiently sloped roofs were on top of their houses and garages shoveling them off lest they collapse from the weight of it. Luckily the guesthouse roof takes care of itself, but there was a shed that needed liberation, as well as paths to the gate, the woodpile, and the shed.
Did I mention the guesthouse is also a functioning farm? Yeah, we ate cheese from one of Tony’s cows. It was good!
By the time we left, Tony said he had never seen that much snow piling up against the house. That did not bode well for our journey home, but that’s a matter for another post.