Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park
The ranges of the Lesser Caucasus in southern Georgia are less well known and less high than the greater Caucasus along the country’s northern border, but they still contain some very beautiful and wild country. For a distance of 60km the Mtkvari River runs northeast from the Meskheti Plateau down to the central valley of Inner Kartli; this is the Borjomi Gorge, marking the division between the humid Colchic habitats of western Georgia and the dried landscapes of the east. There's also influence from the arid Anatolian Plateaux to the south, so there's an intriguing mix of species here, as well as Tertiary relics and some endemic species (such as Gladiolus dzavacheticus and Corydallis erdelii). In 1880 Prince Mikhail Romanov established a royal hunting reserve, building ranger huts and appointing a German chief forester; it became a nature reserve in 1935 and a national park in 1995, opening to the public only in 2001. It covers 85,000 ha with a buffer zone of 450,000 ha, including Abastumani and Sametskhavareo, the highest peak in the region at 2,642m.
What's more, it's the only protected area in Georgia to have a management plan, thanks to the help of the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the German government. These include ambitious plans for the development of ecotourism: hiking trails have been created and overnight shelters were built in 2001. In February 2007 Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park became a certified member of the PAN Parks network, in recognition of the high standard of its biodiversity and management. PAN Parks (www.panparks.org) is an innovative initiative to create a network of Europe's best wilderness areas from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. It combines nature conservation with sustainable tourism to promote a real future for these areas.
Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is open from April to October. You might even see here one of the park’s 60 brown bears.
There are marked trails in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park that are easy to navigate without a guide, they also vary in difficulty and length and include treks with overnight stays in basic huts though the trails and huts are seasonal. There are good trails in the park but to visit the most interesting area at the top, you must do an overnight trip and stay 1 or 2 nights in the mountain huts.
You can start from tiny Marelisi train station (on Tbilisi - Kutaisi/Zugdidi/Batumi railway) which is in a valley in the middle of the forest. From there walk 5 kms on a dirt road into the village of Marelisi. There is the great Marelisi guesthouse with very good food and good information about the park, trails etc. Guesthouse is run by a local family. You can also get a hiking map of the area in the guesthouse.
Within 2 days you could either cross the range north to south from Marelisi to Likani village (2 long days) or you walk to Didi Sakhvlari hut, check out the wild Megruki gorge and walk back to Marelisi on the 2nd day.
Nine marked trails of various lengths, some suitable for horses as well as hikers, crisscross different parts of the park, with overnight accommodation available on the longer routes . Trail 7 is a 3km introductory stroll starting from the park office and visitors centre (www.nationalpark.ge; Meskheti 23, Borjomi; 9am-6pm Mon-Fri, to 4pm Sat & Sun Apr-Oct), 1km west of central Borjomi. Trail 1 (Likani to Marelisi) is a 40km, three-day route crossing the park from south to north via Mt Lomis Mta (2187m). A popular day route of five or six hours follows Trail 1 up the Likani River valley then turns down Trail 6 to come out on the Akhaltsikhe road at Qvabiskhevi. You can make this a two-day hike by continuing up Trail 1 to the Lomis Mta tourist shelter, and then returning down Trails 1 and 6. The longest and hardest route is Trail 2 (Atskuri to Marelisi), a north–south route of 50km, taking three or four days.
To visit the park, you need a ticket (free) from the visitors centre, where you can also obtain maps and information, pay for any nights in the park, and arrange for guides or horses. They also have tents (7 GEL per night), sleeping bags (5 GEL per night), backpacks (5 GEL per night) and camping mats (3 GEL per night) for rent. Though the trails are marked and you’re free to hike on your own, the management recommends taking a park guide (33 GEL per day) because some of the paint markers are damaged or missing, and minor trails can be confusing.
Most guides speak at least some English. You can rent horses for 40 GEL per day for rides from Atskuri or Marelisi.
As for accommodation you can also stay in Borjomi in a brilliant little homestay run by a guy called Levan (or Leo). He speaks fluent English, plays piano, knows the area really well and will go out of his way to help you out. The place is on a quiet little street in the heart of Borjomi. The homestay is in his family home and his mother cooks up amazing breakfasts and snacks, turkish coffee and home grown herbal tea. One very nice and clean double room - for 20 lari each. And for 5 lari extra each you get a huge slap-up breakfast of home-made hachapuri, fried eggs (from their own chickens), bread and cheese and homemade jam.
The place is difficult to find as there's no sign but its a short walk from the bus station along the same road as the local museum (though further up) The address is 18 Pirormani street, Borjomi and you can contact him by mail: [email protected] Telephone: +99598274533 or +99593989595
More information on the park is available here: http://www.borjomi-kharagauli-np.ge/
7 days trekking route
Hiking in the Borjomi-Kharaguali National Park, a large part of which was once the King of Georgia's royal hunting preserve, has been growing in popularity over the past few years, but the longest trail was a 3 day trip. There is a possibility of taking a week-long hike on an unknown ridge-line trail all the way across the park. The route starts in Borjomi and leads all the way to the west of the park to the small Czarist spa town of Abastumani, where you can go and view the moon and stars at the National Astrophysical Observatory.
Abastumani is a small, undiscovered gem in the south central region of the Republic of Georgia. Abastumani was once a Czarist spa town that now it lies nearly forgotten and in partial ruin, only visited by Georgians to breathe the fresh air. Currently the old Czarist spa is closed for renovations, but it's possible to go at night and the guard might let you enter to soak in the mineral rich water, but don't forget to bring your own beverages and a sense of adventure! On top of the mountain above the old village is the oldest astronomical observatories in the former Soviet Union. For a small fee you can go and look through the large telescopes at the stars and the moon and visit the small museum. Camping can be done in two places near the observatory and there are several guesthouses, some homestays, and a cheap old run-down hotel in the town.
More information about Abastumani can be found at the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abastumani