May 21, 2019

A rough road. Travelling from Mestia to Ushguli

Mestia is the gateway to the Svaneti region, is becoming a massive tourist town. It is clearly enjoying a boom time as hotels spring up everywhere, and construction trucks rumble by on its small roads. For me, it was just a pit stop on the way to Ushguli, only 45 km away, or 5 hours on a jarring rough road.

The growth of tourism here is clearly a good thing for the locals, who barely had any visitors during Soviet times except for rich party apparatchiks who endured the long journey to take advantage of the excellent skiing in the hills around Mestia during winter.

The town still has it charms, particularly if you wander to its outskirts where many original Svan defensive towers remain in various states of disrepair. Much of the centre has been rebuilt for tourism ventures; hotels, over-priced convenience stores and restaurants. 

A Svan tower in Mestia with the Zuruldi mountains as a backdrop
Apart from its excellent museum, there is little reason to hang around here. There are some great hikes, up to the Chaladi Glacier or the Koruldi lakes, high above the town.  Or cheat slightly, and walk thirty minutes to the Hastvali ropeway station, which takes you high up to the Zuruldi mountains.

Popular in the winter months with skiers, for a bargain 10 GEL (US$3) the ropeway takes you up to the mountain top in just 15 minutes of stomach-churning movement, with extra serves of bracing fresh-air thrown in.

You can then trek easily along good tracks with awe-inspiring views of the surrounding Caucasus mountain ranges, and even have a beer after all that walking in a small restaurant beside the top ropeway station. 

Taking the Hastvali ropeway provides a spectacular view of the Caucasus mountains
Ushguli was calling. So getting up early I headed to the main square and negotiated a seat in a shared taxi for the ride east for 30 GEL (US$10). As we headed up the valley the road was tarred and in good condition. It did not take long for that change as it became a rough rutted track only suitable for four-wheel drives.

Depending on the weather, this road is closed for over six months of the year. It is not only the snow that makes it impassable, but landslides and flooding from the River Ingur which help make the highest town in Europe so isolated. 

It was until recently the countries most dangerous road, not just because of risks from nature, but also banditry. Over the last ten years not only has there been a focus on improving the road, but also security, with the result that on this hot late autumn day the major problem, apart from the constant bouncing of the suspension, was the wandering livestock who seemed to have little road sense.

I am as big as you. Stationary livestock on the Ushguli road

It is a fine 4-day trek between Mestia and Ushguli. A popular walk that I was tempted to do, but chose the 4WD option as I was running short on time. The road passed through valleys, and lush green agricultural land, as it wound its way towards Ushguli. 

Much of the view was obscured by the dust thrown up by the car ahead as we continued in a small convoy, waiting for each other as we crossed a riverbed where the bridge had been washed away. 

After several hours of no human habitation, small Svaneti villages with their distinctive towers resembling mini-skyscrapers began to appear. The taxi stopped, letting off locals with their numerous boxes of food, and plastic crates of alcohol. Vodka was still clearly the number one beverage of choice here.

Many of the settlements have been depopulated, with only a few hardy villagers remaining. Their children are sent off to Mestia or Tbilisi for much of the year as there are no educational facilities here, and there is a great risk that they would be stranded in their homes.

In the summer holidays all return and help out with the farming, or use their English skills in tourism ventures as houses are turned into B & B's for the months when the tourists can make it through.

A larger group of Svan towers became visible on the horizon and the road ended in a muddy square.
I had arrived in Ushguli.

The end of the road. Ushguli

You Might Also Like