September 26, 2014: In a country of remarkable, unusual historical villages like Shatili, surreal cave monasteries like David Gareji and Vardzia and stunning high Caucasus vistas like Mt. Kazbegi, Ushguli takes the cake.
Ushguli is a community comprised of four closely situated small villages in Upper Svaneti with Mt. Shkhara towering overhead. At an altitude above 2100 metres, it is one of the highest permanently inhabited places in Europe.
When we arrived, Mt. Shkhara was hiding behind a veil of clouds, with just the briefest partial glimpses of its snow-capped face. Shkhara, by the way, is the highest mountain in Georgia at 5193 metres, and third highest in the Caucasus Mountains.
When the clouds finally parted and the sun lit up the high alpine valley it was magical. The towers jut upwards towards the blue sky almost as if they are striving for better views of the surrounding mountains as much as keeping an eye out for invading hordes.
These days, the invading hordes are tourists, but it doesn’t seemed to have affected daily village life all that much. Sure, there are a couple of museums and the odd guest house and restaurant offering hearty mountain food, but at the time of our visit, life for the Svan people was centered around millenia-old preparations for winter. Villagers were busy chopping wood, bringing in hay and picking fruit to lay up for the long winter ahead.
Even though the valley is snow covered for six months of the year and the road in is often closed, there are enough families with children living in the area year round to support a small school. And it’s a nice new one too.
We visited one of the small museums where a delightful locally-born Svan woman showed us around, speaking non-stop mostly in a mix of what I can only guess was Svan and Georgian with the odd Russian word thrown in for clarification. Despite the language barrier, she was an enthusiastic ambassador for traditional Ushguli culture, music and crafts. She even played a couple of traditional instruments for us. Haunting melodies that suited this remote high mountain space.
At the small and new Hotel Riho guest house, we bought some Svaneti salt from the charming host, Gulo, who spoke some English and took great pride in showing us around. The rooms were simple but spacious and the shared bathrooms were up to European standards. Her place is the closest to Mt. Shkhara and has the best view, albeit a longer walk than some of the other options, along a muddy path well decorated with fresh cow pies. If we go back again, I would much rather stay here than in Mestia. With three meals a day, it’s just 60 GEL per person (about $35), even less if you take fewer meals.
After exploring the villages and taking a ridiculously obscene number of photos, we stopped for a bowl of hearty beef and cilantro soup at a small cafe, where we sat outside in the sun watching the comings and goings of daily mountain life and ogling Mt. Shkhara in the distance.
All too soon, it was time to leave. We wanted to get back to Kutaisi tonight because we were due back in Tbilisi the next day.
Just before we hopped back in the car to head out, a small marshrutka bus arrived from Mestia bringing in a few villagers and the odd backpacker. As we started down the road, we passed another ten vans arriving, maybe more. These ones looked to be full of tourists off the big tour busses. The invading hordes had arrived after all. We made our escape just in time!