I’d always wanted to hike the long road to Ushguli from Mestia, high in the mountains of the Svaneti region of Georgia. But the weather here is unpredictable.
It was April, almost May, and yet the road- if you can even call it that- had only just opened up. The mountain peaks were still covered in snow, the odd avalanche was hurtling down the slopes as the warmer weather turned it to slush, and in the high passes rocks would tumble to the ground. The nights were freezing cold, and being a well prepared, organised and of course experienced traveller, I hadn’t thought to pack my down sleeping bag. How cold could it be I thought? Really bloody cold was the answer I got.
In Mestia- the hub of the Svaneti region- a town that lies at 1500 metres altitude, and is mere miles from the Russian border, I was told by local guides and the tourist information service that it wasn’t wise to attempt the 4 day walk through the mountains to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ushguli– an old collection of villages that claims to be the highest continually inhabited settlement on the planet, a place where ancient Svan defensive towers rise to the clear blue skies and verdant green mountain slopes reach up to the many, many peaks.
I was too early in the year to make the walk, but a 4 x 4 would at this time be able to take the road. It wouldn’t be quite the same, but still, Ushguli would be the highest place on Earth that I’d visited. I was in.
Maybe it’s the altitude affecting me here, but Svaneti is one of the most glorious places I have ever visited, and Ushguli is the literal pinnacle of that glory. A big claim I know, but one that you should really verify yourself if you haven’t visited, and if you have been here, then you already know that what I’m claiming is probably true.
Ushguli is actually a collective term for four villages- Chazhashi, Jibiani, Chvibiani and Murk’meli- which are loosely separated from each other, although almost completely merged.
It’s high, really high. Higher than I’d ever been before- apart from that one time in Amsterdam. It isn’t called Upper Svaneti for any old reason.
And the road from Mestia, the closest town of any real size, is impassable for much of the year due to snow fall, and landslides. This makes it not only one the highest communities in the world, but also one of the most isolated. Because of this isolation, and the sheer difficulty in reaching Ushguli, the villages have managed to retain a somewhat unique and archaic feel to them. It’s a fascinating look into Svaneti’s history and culture.
Now that I was intent on visiting, it was time to find a way to actually get there.
In Mestia I found a 4 x 4 driver looking for work that day. As with most Georgians, his name was George. Or Geo for short, and after some fierce haggling, Geo was driving me into the mountains.
Ushguli is a mere 45 kilometres from Mestia, but Geo said that we would be gone the whole day. It would take at least 3 hours to get there and 3 to get back, and that was with no stops.
I didn’t quite believe him. An average speed of 15 kilometres an hour seemed unbearably slow. And as we sped out of Mestia, slowly ascending to new heights, the road was nice, new and solid tarmac. After admiring the views of Mestia, and the multitude of Svan defensive towers that still stand here, we suddenly began to slow down.
The new road had ended. Dust was being kicked up, the tarmac was gone and we were driving on a dirt track. From here on, the road slowly deteriorated. We were crawling along, gaining both altitude and distance on Mestia. Of course Geo was right. Why did I ever doubt him?
As we passed through smaller villages and hamlets, we followed the course of the River Ingur. It was flowing fast, as the snow on the mountains began melting in the Spring and feeding the fierce current. Geo was lamenting the depopulation of Upper Svaneti as we drove. The Svan have an infamous reputation in Georgia for their independence. The distinct Svan towers were used in days gone to keep outsiders at bay, and that’s if they could even make it this high into the mountains. Isolation was their protection.
Geo said that the modern world though was taking its toll on both the language and the people here. The Svan have a distinct, and proudly separate identity to the lowland Georgians but inhospitable weather conditions and lack of economic opportunities have forced many of the younger population into emigrating to the bigger cities of Tbilisi or Zugdidi. That’s why the tourism dollar was becoming so important, and a reason why Mestia has been so developed in recent years. Ushguli on the other hand has remained- as an untouchable UNESCO site- the way it has always been for hundreds of years.
We passed small hamlets and the odd defensive tower sticking out of the cliff side or on the edge of the river. Geo said that in the harsh winter months, most of the children in these small settlements were sent to the cities to live and to attend school. It was just easier. But Ushguli still has a die hard population of around 200, and enough kids for a year round school to be run there, unlike many of the villages along the way.
The altitude meter was creeping up, and it was becoming colder and colder as Georgian pop songs blared from the cassette tape that Geo was playing at full volume.
We were close though, and as we neared the villages the sloping fields which slowly climbed towards the mountains became full of signs of life- horses, cattle, sheep, goats and the odd herder and their wayward hut.
The fields were vibrant in Spring, the snow was melting to reveal lush pastures and ample grazing. It might be isolated, but it would be an alluring place in the world to be able to call home.
Then over the crest of the rocky, muddy road, the Svan towers began to appear.
The long road was finally ending, and I was in Ushguli.
I jumped out of the 4 x 4, leaving Geo to find a cup of hot chai while I stared in awe at the impressive villages arrayed before me. Ushguli is a small place, but it doesn’t lack character.
There were no real roads or paths through the buildings and towers, some of which dated back hundreds of years and had been occupied by the same families for the entirety of their existence.
In places the ice was still so thick it had to be physically climbed over, and sliding down the other side there was maximum chance that I’d run into the path of a carefree cow.
In other places the snow had melted, leaving large, muddy puddles that had to be simply walked through, with no way around.
The locals went their way fearlessly, traversing snow, ice and mud as if it wasn’t even there, some dragging huge sleds through the slush, laden high with mud or cow dung, to whatever business they had to attend to that day.
There was even a little restaurant serving Khachapuri, spicy Karcho soup and showing endless episodes of Georgian soap operas. It wasn’t all medieval here.
It was already getting late in the day when I went to find Geo, still drinking more chai, and we set off in the 4 x 4, back the way we had come, on the only long road out of Ushguli, to try and make the slow, rough journey to Mestia before the sun set.
The easiest way to get to Ushguli is by 4 x 4 from Mestia. The drivers usually charge 200 GEL per car, and people will congregate by the Tourist Information Office to try and share the costs. Get there early-ish if you want a spot. I managed to haggle down to 100 GEL for one car, are there wen’t any other travellers, but this wouldn’t happen in busier periods.
You can also make the journey on foot. It takes 3-4 days and you’ll need camping equipment, although there are a few home stays on route. Ask at Tourist Information for up to date info and for any maps they might have. There’s also some good quality information HERE. The best time for this is of course Summer, as it’s not walkable for much of the rest of the year.
This article was first printed in Georgia Today.