May 13, 2019

Ushguli. A village at the edge of Europe

Ushguli, situated at a height of 2,100 metres (6,900 feet) is the highest settlement in Europe. Isolated for most of the year, its defined by its ancient stone towers and the muddy paths joining them. A place that, except for a couple of months in summer, you will encounter more livestock than people.

The village, or actually four small villages that have been combined, is encountering a new lease of life. During Soviet times it actually had a daily helicopter link with Tbilisi. When this ended, combined with a number of winter avalanches that severely damaged buildings, the population dwindled to less than 50 people.

With an improved road, and a resurgence of interest in tourists visiting Georgia, it has begun to grow again, and now numbers around 200. This increases in summer as the children studying at university or school, return home, often equipped with vital English skills to use in the burgeoning tourism industry.

The medieval Svan towers built for defence are now being converted into accommodation for tourists. I was booked into the Nizhatadze tower. Situated just off the main road, or mud track, as it had been raining solidly for the last few days, a sign helpfully pointed the way to a path over a small bridge.

The Nizhatadze Tower. It does indeed have wi-fi!
Although not luxury it was more than adequate, and even had functioning wi-fi. Even in summer Ushguli gets cold at night, but the thick walls of the tower kept it nice and warm.

The highlight was the local food, with the seasonal berries being used in almost all dishes, along with lashings of potatoes and tomatoes.

The father of the family made his own wine from Saperavi grapes, and my glass was constantly refilled as I ate the tasty food and talked with the daughter who was helping out for her summer holidays from a Tbilisi university where she was studying languages.

Looking south towards the track to Mestia
There really is not a huge amount to do in this remote settlement, but that in itself makes it rather special. Just walking, to explore the villages, and to hike to the Shkhara Glacier, is a highlight in itself. Negotiating the mud-filled alleyways while sidestepping cows and continually looking up at the ancient towers is a great way to spend your time.

The Ushguli Ethnographic Museum is one tower you do not want to miss. Opening times are a bit erratic, but if you stand outside it and look interested a local will help by shouting out to get the owner who arrives with a key. 5 Gel (US$1.5) gets you inside and helps show what life in Ushguli was like for many centuries.

Chcikens and humans on the top, pigs, sheep and cattle below. It would be an interesting experience...
The walls are blackened from the fires that burnt here throughout winter to keep the occupants warm. And this is just not families that lived here. The livestock stayed inside during the winter months, else they would perish in the snowdrifts outside, and their body heat helped warm the room.

Elaborate furniture had the sheep and pigs on the ground level, with the humans and chickens on the level above, while the cows slept in the middle.

Getting to sleep would have been interesting, not to mention the wonderful smells that would be wafting around inside the tower. Bet they could not wait for Summer.

The easy way to the Shkhara Glacier
On my second day the weather was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky, and perfect for a hike to the Shkhara glacier. It is situated on the highest mountain in Georgia, which acts as the natural border between itself and Russia.

It is an easy, pretty flat, 8 km walk from Ushguli. The locals sensibly use horses, which you can rent, but I found the walk easy going and thoroughly enjoyable.

The glacier at the end is impressive, although the rocky moraines make it slow going at the end if you want to actually reach the glacier.

The glacial meltwaters. Perfect for cooling beer.
Perhaps the most unexpected highlight was due to an enterprising local who had set up a bar at the end of the trail.

Using the glacial meltwater to keep the drinks cold it was well worth paying double the shop price to sit back on a plastic chair and table, and look up at the spectacular mountains while sipping a cold Georgian beer.

On the return journey, I detoured to visit the monastery just outside of Ushguli. As it was situated so far from the rest of the country it was deemed to be the best place to hide the gold and foreign currency reserves of Georgia during the Second World War.

A very safe decision as it turned out.

The Ushguli Monastery. Safer than a bank.
Ushguli is a well worth the effort to reach it, although if you want to go avoid the peak summer months of July and August. Accommodation is very limited and you may end up staying in a tent in someone's garden.

Not the worst place to be, but not matching the experience of staying in a warm tower on those cold evenings, and wandering through the empty laneways.

After three days of sunshine, a rarity up here, storms, low cloud and very wet weather were forecast. I needed to leave, and getting out of Ushguli was going to be as interesting as getting here.

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