May 04, 2019

Flying North to the Caucasus Mountains

One of the main reasons for me coming to Georgia was to visit Ushguli, a remote village which, at a height of 2,100 metres (6,900 feet) is one of the highest inhabited places in Europe. It is also somewhat difficult to visit, with the only road to the settlement open in the summer months.

To reach Ushguli you first have to make your Mestia, the gateway to the Svaneti region. The choice is by Marshrutka (mini-bus) direct on what could be best described as rural roads in about 10-12 hours, possibly the least comfortable option by a long way, but also the cheapest at about US$12.

You can also travel by train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, 3 1/2 hours from Mestia. This is quite popular, particularly the overnight sleeper option, and you can easily pick up a Marshrutka on arrival outside of the train station after your 8 1/2 journey from the Georgian capital. This will cost you between US$20 - US$50 depending on if you prefer seats on the train or sharing a 4-berth or 2-berth cabin.

I would have plumped for the train/Marshrutka option, I always enjoy train journeys particularly in the old Soviet Union. But I discovered a third option. Fly direct from Tbilisi in 45 minutes with the romantically named Vanilla Sky. And for just over US$30. An absolute bargain, and cheaper than comfortable train travel.

The Let L-410 Turbolet at Mestia Queen Tamar Airport 
However, all is not as straightforward as jumping online and booking for the day you want to travel. Vanilla Sky only fly to Mestia 3 to 4 times a week, and their schedule can change monthly (the best place to check schedules in on their facebook page). You can only book 60 days in advance, and there is the risk that your flight date may change.

Adding to the mix is that the weather in the mountainous Svaneti can be too dangerous to fly, particularly if there is low cloud. The journey is VFR (Visual Flight Rules) which basically means that there is no nice on board flight equipment to help the plane land, so if there is poor visibility the flight is cancelled.

Oh, and there are only 19 seats available to be booked on the LET L-410 Turbolet, a robust Czech made plane designed for extreme conditions and short runways. Perfect for Mestia's Queen Tamar airport at the foot of glacial mountain ranges. So you have to book early.

The slight effort in booking the flight more than pays off with the spectacular views you get on the short flight. Note that the departure is from Natakhtari Airport, about 30 km outside of Tbilisi (select this not Tbilisi on the booking page).

Flying into Svaneti
A free minibus picks you up from the Big Bicycle statue near the Radisson in Tbilisi and takes you to the old military airport, where check-in is quick and simple, and you walk out to the plane.

Flying over the cable car city of Chiatura, the plane soon leaves the green fields and agricultural lands behind as it reaches the Caucasus mountains. Glaciers and mountain peaks are visible from both sides of the aircraft (get a seat on the right-hand side for the best glacier views, or the left for the best views of Mestia).

The aircraft flies through the valleys, with mountain tops climbing high above it on either side. Not only do you get to Mestia the fastest way possible, but you get a superb sightseeing flight, seeing some of the highest mountains in Europe on the border of Georgia and Russia.

There is no in-flight service, so bring your own peanuts and beer as you gaze out at the glaciers situated at eye-level as you fly past.

A glacier from the plane window
A fairly steep dive takes you into the valley where Mestia sits, giving you great views of the stone Svan towers, built in the middle ages as defensive strongholds for families in case of attack.

A reminder of how lucky I was in arriving on time on the day I planned to travel was brought home when we disembarked the plane at the small Queen Tamar airport. It was packed with passengers who had been waiting to depart for three or more days as cloud cover had prevented any landings. 

The previous flight, two days before, the plane had actually turned back to Tbilisi in mid-flight as conditions worsened in the mountains ahead. The lesson here is to give yourself ample time to visit this beautiful part of Georgia and to avoid stress, do not plan out to fly from Mestia the day before you are departing on an international flight!

If you can be flexible in your travel plans, then the flight to Mestia will reward you as one of the most spectacular, and cheapest, plane journeys in the world.

Mestia and its Svan towers as the plane approaches the airport

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