During my recent trip to Georgia, I spent a day in the hotch-potch straggle of villages collectively known as Ushguli.
They’re reached by an apology of a road from Mestia, the main focal point of tourism in Svaneti. I shared a taxi with a couple of Germans to bounce and slide over gravel, in and out of potholes and scarily close to sections of road which had just fallen away. The road’s in the process of being rebuilt, so don’t let that put you off.
Ushguli translates as “fearless heart” which matches the reputation of the Svans historically being a fearsome people suspicious of incomers. Five villages form the settlement of Ushguli: Murkmeli which you pass as you go in, Chazhashi where your driver will park, and then higher up Chvibiani, Zhibiani and Lamjurishi, the highest of which claims to be the highest permanently settled village in Europe. It’s a slightly dubious claim, though, not least because geographers and other experts can’t even decide whether Georgia is European or Asian. (I’ll save that one for a later blog post.)
So what is it about Ushguli that makes it worth the arduous journey? Mostly, it’s the setting. Reached at the dead end of this rural road, all that stretches ahead of you are the few clusters of homes and Svan towers that constitute the villages and then meadows framed by the mountain peaks of the Great Caucasus. UNESCO have had Chazhashi on their list since 1996. Part of the attraction is just to find a quiet corner and sit. There’s also an ethnographic museum in one of the towers which is far more interesting than it sounds. Honestly. I’m no great fan of museums but it was good.
In Mestia, the person to find is the lady that sells the marshrutka tickets from her agency next to the bakery in the centre of town. She manages more of the drivers and you’ll wait for less time. A return ticket in a shared taxi costs 20 lari. Be prepared to negotiate how long a wait you’ll have in Ushguli with your driver. Tip: if you wish to spend more than a couple of hours, it’s worth popping into the restaurant he’s likely to have holed up in to make sure he’s not been knocking back too many beers.
Some of my favourite shots from the day:
If you’re planning a trip to Georgia – and you should – make sure you don’t miss Svaneti. You can stay in Ushguli and you can even do a three day hike there from Mestia in the short summer season. Or you can do as I did and base yourself in Mestia and visit Ushguli for the day.