Issue 3, 2015. June-July


GEORGIA'S CRYING MOUNTAINS: A JOURNEY TO MTIRALA NATIONAL PARK's Heather Yundt recently traveled to the Mtirala National Park in Adjara. The park, which is just a few kilometers north of Batumi, is a beautiful off-the-beaten-path side trip from the Black Sea.

In the town of Chakvi, north of Batumi, pointed hills meet the Black Sea. Clouds hang low between the hill crests. Houses seem to sprout from the surrounding greenery.

This isn't the Georgia I was expecting to see this weekend.

With a friend visiting Georgia for the first time, I had booked flights to Mestia. I cross my fingers through day after day of rain and hope for the best on our way to the airport just north of Tbilisi. At the airport, our departure time ticks by and still no plane appears on the runway. We pull out our map of Georgia. It's time for Plan B. Mtirala National Park, in the Adjara-Imereti mountain range, catches my eye. Just 12 kilometers north of Batumi, it seems reachable without a car. We're soon on a six-hour bus ride across the country. We book a guesthouse over the phone with my broken Georgian. "My friend has a taxi. He will drive you," our host tells me. At least that's what I think he said. We reach Chakvi on foot from the Batumi Botanical Gardens and ask around for a minibus headed toward the national park. After all, our rural tourism brochure tells us Gurami Guesthouse is just 400 meters from the motorway.

Someone calls to us from across the road. We look up from our map. Guram's friend has found us. We hop into his Lada and we're off.

The road leaves town and begins to twist around the hills. We are soon grateful to our host's friend for agreeing to do the trip. About seven kilometers in, we pass the Mtirala park sign. That's where the paved road ends. Eight slow kilometers later, we reach the park's Visitor's Center. Our driver keeps going.

Guram is waiting for us in rain boots with his son to help carry our bags. A sign points up the hill: Gurami Guesthouse, 0.4 kilometers. This is where our "motorway" ends. We trudge up the hill through the mud.

Mtirala National Park, established in 2007, covers about 15,700 hectares of Colchic mixed forest. The moisture trapped between the mountains and the sea makes the Mtirala Mountains one of the wettest places in the country. The precipitation, often exceeding 4,000 millimeters a year, is what has given Mtirala its name: "the one who cries."

We set off from Guram's early the next morning, map in hand, homemade khachapuri warming our backpacks. The trail starts from the Visitor's Center. It follows a river, leading us past a small zip-line course to a 15-meter tall waterfall. The cold spray quickly turns us around.

From there, we join the second trail heading up. The mountains are low by Georgian standards — just 1,381 meters above sea level. But the nearly 1,000-meter muddy climb in altitude makes it no easy route.

We pass Colchic box trees, ivy, and cherry laurel shrubs. Further up, the trail takes us through beech groves. Known for its biodiversity, Mtirala National Park is home to 284 plant species, including a variety of endemic and relict plants.

The park is particularly known for its birds of prey and amphibians, such as the Caucasian salamander and Caucasian toad. According to signboards, roe deer and brown bear are in the area, but the forest is quiet.

The crisp air and light rain keeps us moving. We take the steep path slowly, passing two campsites complete with outhouses and picnic tables. Somewhere nearing the top, we enter the cloud-cover. The mud becomes wet snow.

We pause at a refuge near the top of the trail for lunch. The shelter can host about eight people and is equipped with a toilet and shower. Solar panels provide electricity and hot water. But the refuge is locked. We've forgotten to get the key from the Visitor's Center. The solar panels become our shelter instead.

We descend quickly following an old forestry road. Officially, the trail is a recommended two-day hike, but the 15-kilometer loop takes us only about eight hours.

Back at the guesthouse, Guram's family is ready with food: homemade bread, fresh eggs, fried potatoes, warm bean stew, and of course homemade wine. We stumble through Georgian conversation before retreating to our room where a fire is burning.

Mtirala's mountains are far from the postcard-perfect image of defense towers in the high Caucasus that cover Georgian guidebooks. But this lush national park's off-the-beaten-path beauty is worth the trip. Svaneti can wait.