This is the most exciting story of our trip from Germany to Vladivostok, via Central Asia, in 2016. I write about this now almost 1 year later and I realize, this was propably the biggest adventure of our entire lives!
It all began when we decided to go to a beautiful village called Ushguli. The village is in the remote upper part of Svaneti, in Georgia. I read a travel blog from a German coulpe a few weeks before that drove there with their Jeep. They mentioned about going only one direction, downhill, otherwise this track would be a nightmare. I also read that in their opinion this was the hardest off-road of their world tour, much more difficult than Mongolia, Pamir, etc. The direction they told was Mestia-Ushguli-Lentekhi. Its been a few weeks ago that I read their post and I was confused with all the complicated names of these Georgian villages , so we startet from Lentheki...
Day 1: We started in Kuthaisi with a fairly good road, the landscape and scenery where just beautiful and we stoped a lot for taking pictures and small braks. . It started raining heavily in the evening and we had to stop for the night. The first 100km took us about 5 hours that day and we reached close to Lentheki. The whole stretch from Kuthaisi to Mestia is about 220km long, only 120km left to go!
Day 2: Lentekhi is located at an alltitude of about 750m, from now on it was going up! We drove the whole day relaxed but on very bad roads that went from potholes to pot-craters to complete mud+gravel about 10km after Lentheki. We made about 70km in 5 hours and took camp just next to the "road" . Before we stoped we met a car full of drunk russians that came against us and had just driven what we had ahead. They were in a 4WD and said they took the whole day, 8-9 hours going DOWN! from Ushguli. We were planing to go UP, with only 2WD, no locks, no low-gear, a heavy camper with 3,6tons and with only winter tires, no offroad tires! We have been told, that the hard part are the 120km from Lentekhi to Ushguli. Big wholes, river crossings, mud, huge stones adn holes and steep inclines. We were thinking to go back, but that meant also going back another full day on the bad roads we just came. We decided to sleep over night and see how the road goes on, can it realy be that bad?
Day 3: We woke up in the morning and had to discuss weather to drive back or not. Of course Minjung wanted to go back and that would have been the reasonable choice! I realy felt bad about driving back on those bad roads and pushed to go on! 70km done, only 50km left! After breakfast, we decided to see how the road goes the next few kilometers and then make a final call. We decide to ask the locals, one of our favorite strategy. After asking 10 locals if it is possible with our car and no 4WD to reach where we want to go: "Maschina, ushguli, problem?" 5 people say "Problem" 5 people say "problem NIED". Uhm, thank you, so what do we do? After aprox. 5km we reached a steep decline of about 20m that was very muddy! I stoped at the peak but the car was sliding and we went down, I couldnt stop it. After that there was a incline of about 5m that was a bit less muddy, but we couldnt go up, nor could we turn. The tires were just spinning with no grip whatsoever. And even if we could turn, there was now way we could ever go up that hill and come back. This was the point of no return. I knew it was time to put on the snowchains! And so we did! The chains worked perfectly in the mud, but the track was muddy and also stoney. So we couldnt take off the chains, and had to drive very slow and careful. It realy stared to go uphil and the road became very bad. Big water holes, small river crossings, all were no problem as long as we were going slow. But the steep inclines were realy a problem. We are too heavy and sometimes could hardly go up. I also noticed that one of the biggest problem was not that we didnt have 4WD but that when the car is shaking too much, going uphil with speed, one tire would loose traction and we couldnt go up. We drove about 4-5 hours for 50km and reached a small village named Tsana. This village was so idylic that we decided to stay for lunch. After that we went for a hike to the village that only had a small steel brige over a fast running river. Most of the houses were empty and falling apart. of the 20-30 houses, there are only 3-4 houses inhabited. Only in summer, in winter it is impossible to reach as the snow is just too much and no car could pass this terrible track in winter! The villagers are nice and friendly, we first get invited for Vodka and then for fruit. The only thing that grows well up here are potatos and some wild herbs. The people have a few cows and chicken. The fruit, all the other food, building materials, and all other things need to be driven up here! 100km on this shitty road that we just took 3 days driving!
We like it so much that we decide to stay for the night. The family is so friendly and gives us delicious food. The life here is realy back 100 years. I ask again about the last 20km of road and our host said that the hardest part is just ahead, with a big glacier and the biggest river crossing just before the peak. He said it will be hard and he is unsure if we can make it. The guy drives this twice a week, so we would like to listen to him, but what can we do, at this point we just cant go back. We sleep in the car and it was a pretty cool night. In the middle of the night, I woke up from the sound of a car. I hear shouting in russian. After they arrive, they drink and walk around. Suddenly the van is shaking! They are calling: "Hey deutchman, come out!" I think fuck off! Usualy I would jump out the van sreaming with my machete in the hand, but its 4 guys and I heared them using a baseball-bat to hit stones, so I am playing dead. This is the last thing you need, specialy travelling with kids! It took about 10min until they leave and I can finaly go back to sleep!
Day 4: I woke up in the morning and went out of the car imediately! I go to the guest house where the russians have slept, prepared to give them a speech about last night! They welcome me and inviting me for breakfast. Ivan, the driver apologizes 100times for last night and my anger goes away with the beautiful scenery and a hot cup coffe.
After breakfast, I talk to Ivan and he tells me: 99% of people drive this downhill as it is supposed to be, from Ushguli to Lentekhi. But he thaught its too boring so he decided to take it uphill with his Mitsubishi Pajero 4x4 just like us! We have not met a single car since we departed from Lentekhi and that was a big luck. The road is mostly one lane with mountain to one side and a drop of to the river on the other side. No space for passing by another car. We are driving uphill on our absolute limit and if another car came we could not stop, move back or go anywhere. Ivan suggests to go first and wait for us, to help if there are any problems. So far we have made it well, so I thank him for the offer and tell him to just go. That time I had no idea how lucky we were that we met Ivan and his friends!
Except the one time when we put on the snow-chains, we haven't been stuck and we could go up everywhere, aldough it was tricky from time to time. I also should mention that we hit the underbody of our van 3-4 times. The lift with additional leaf-springs and spacers was maybe the most important modification I made on the van, without the life, we coulnt drive such a trail. Our host was right, the next 20km to Ushguli were absolute hell! The road was non-existent and was only a "open-crack" in the mountain where people have been driving for many years. No excavator has ever seen this piece of earth. After 5km we fall into a deep pothole (crater) with one of the back tires. Ivan has already prepared his belt and pulls us out quick. Just a bit later, we are not getting up a maybe 25% increase and Ivan has to pull us again. I am realy suprised how he could pull us with his Pajero, but that machine realy seem to work well. While we are struggeling to make it, the russians have a funny offroad game. They stand outside on the side-step and hold on to the roof rack while driving. Crazy!
A bit later we arrive at the only bridge of the track. There are a couple jeeps waiting, all 4WD and mostly tour groups. Our host from Tsana who knows them has called them to wait at the bridge which is also one of the rare points where cars can pass eachother. They all say we are crazy, and the drivers warn me again about that glacier where we will pass. I answer, by now we also know that we are crazy and this is the first time that I am getting a bit scared now. You know, its all fun and games until the cops show up! Meaning, as long as its going well, its fun, but what if it doesnt? There have been a few dangerous situations when I asked Minjung to go out of the car with the kids and let me drive alone, just in case.
But we have Ivan! He has to pull us maybe a total of 5-6 times that day. Once out of the pothole, and once we got stuck in the soft stones at the big river crossing. The rest was uphill when the clutch just couldnt take the weight of the car to get started on the hill. Then it comes, the infamous glacier! We stop to have a look and let another jeep pass by, Ivan goes first and passes, but leaves a big trench. The melting water has left a big mud-pool above. I go out to check and collect a few stones to fill the hole on the downside of the track. Just as a precaution I layed out our sandboards at the most muddy part. Then its showtime! I drive as close right to the glacier as I can, since its going down on the left. I am a bit too conservative and strike the ice. This is pushing the whole car left, down! I can turn the handle and pass but the back of the car is falling to the whole with the tires. This is exactly where I layed out the sanboard. We almost get stuck but the snowchains dig themselfs out of the mud slowly! Wow, we have acctualy made it!!! :-)
Time to celebrate.... NOT! After maybe 200m I hear a noise and I stop. We have a flat tire, of course! So it is the first time we have to use one of our 2 spare tyres. The tire change is routine and takes about 10 min. The flat turns out later to be a broken valve that got damaged by the snow chains.
When we reached the pass, the GPS shows an altitute of 2620m. Only now I can relax and enjoy the never ending beauty of this landscape! Green, fresh vegetation, Snowy peaks and cristal clear rivers. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen! What a special piece of Land! The last few kilometers downhill to Ushguli Village are easy, we arrive in the village, totaly exhausted and looking for a place to eat! We say goodbye to Ivan & Friends and move out of the village to find camp at the valley that leads to Mt. Skhara peak with 5,193m. We go to bed once agiain with the most beautiful view at the No. 1 spot. Happy End!
Day 5: Ushguli Village and back to Civilization
I wake up from something hitting the car. Russians again? No, there are cows around the car hitting the car with their horns while feeding! They look very curious! We also have another new friend. Since we arrived at the village, there is a dog following us around. The dog sleept under our car, I protected him from another bigger dog and it looks like he is returning the favor. I heard him chasing away cows in the night, and now he also chases away these cows :-) He follows us for the hiking and we realy would like to keep him. I am not a dog lover, but this one is definately special! We are thinking about how it will be, crossing all the borders that we plan to cross and decide it will not be possible. Also this is a very nice place to live for a wild dog. He looks healthy and clean and I feel like he would be happier here than if we take him with us. The hiking is great and we are drinking from a crystal clear river. The locals drink from the mountain rivers all over Georgia, it is so ridiculous that we trust to drink bottled water packed up in plastic bottles but most people feel dirty or unsafe drinking water from nature. Of course, should only drink from clean sources and I would suggest not to drink natural water in dense-populated areas due to human/chemical contamination. The locals also showed us a few mountain herbs and flowers that can be eaten, stuff that we wouldnt even consider to eat without their knowledge.
After all the struggles that we overcame to get to this place, we spend only a fairly short time in Ushguli! A half day hiking and we are starting the last 20km offroad down to Mestia, a tourist and ski resort village. The track is very popular and worn out accordingly. We spend the rest of the day driving down slowly and stop often! Aldough we made the hardest part, this is still challenging and we are still tensioned to make it down safe! After reaching the fist asphalt after 150km Offroad in 5 days we are so happy and relieved. What an adventure! This will not be the last time on our trip that I kiss a paved road.
Reflecting now we are very lucky that we made it. It is my life philosophy to dare and try and push the limits but you gotta be very carefull not pushing it too far! We are also very aware that we share the responsibility for those 2 lovely boys! Offroad wise, I recoment anyone with 2WD to bring snow-chains, they are a total game changer in mud, snow and on all bad roads (does not work in Sand). You know how it is, the biggest problems today might be meaningless tomorow, and the biggest challenge looks easy after you have succeeded! We are realy glad that we tried it and that we succeeded! Aldough we were very stressed and worried while driving up, it now became one of the best storries of our world tour and we wouldnt want to miss this experience! After all, life is not supposed to be easy, and if it is, its usualy very boring (at least for me)!
So go out, do it, drive, run, walk, go, dare, try, if you make it, good! If not, there will always be a way out and a lesson learned! Enough with the life-advice now, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the pictures! I will try to cut a video with the gopro footage soon too :-)
Andi & the Earthucation Family