From 2022, the TCTA will invite hikers on the longest public trek yet, a 1,200km journey from north-west Georgia to southern Armenia, encompassing well-trodden sections of the route and wilder sections currently under development. In the last few years, the existing 57km Mestia-Ushguli leg has emerged as the most popular section along the TCT, taking walkers through some of the Caucasus' most dramatic mountains and Svaneti's unique architecture, in a hike that is manageable for even novice hikers, like myself. A new extension, currently under development to the east, means that Ushguli will mark the northernmost end of the existing route and the start of a new leg, which will take intrepid hikers into the temperate highlands of Racha, a region of vast lakes, winding rivers and waterfalls.
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Each day in peak season from July to August, about 400 walkers currently depart on the existing route from Mestia to Ushguli, according to Khergiani. They cross one peak every day, climbing for the morning and gradually descending in the afternoon into the next village, where locals in newly converted guesthouses serve hearty meals of khachapuri (cheese bread), stews, honey and homemade wine.
During the winter months, when all roads are cut off by heavy snow, the population of Ushguli shrinks to one local doctor and about a dozen hardy holdouts. As the frozen mountain passes become navigable in early June, the hiking route from Mestia is revealed. When I set out in early summer, the route to Ushguli was a vast, vivid kaleidoscope of wild mountain flora, with sparse forests of dwarfish and twisted trees, and endless expanses dotted with poisonous hogweed, rhododendron, shrubs and dwarf elder. As I hiked beneath some of the tallest mountains in Europe and breathed in the abundance of sweet-smelling natural herbs and wildflowers, I was struck by the feeling of limitless space and sense of nature re-emerging.