Deep in the Upper Svaneti region of the Georgian Caucasus Mountains, even further removed than Mestia, is a little collection of villages called Ushguli. It’s made up of four individual villages within a single valley at the foot of Mount Shkara, the third-highest in the Caucasus. It’s also the highest mountain in Georgia.
Shkara is the highest point of a massif (the whole mountain complex) called the Bezingi Wall. It looms over everything, an ever-present white wall between Georgia’s Upper Svaneti and Russia.
Cat’s outta the bag on this one now — that’s one of the four villages of Ushguli. That mostly-obscured wall of rock at the end of the valley is Mount Shkara and the Russian border.
Pretty out there, right? Ushguli is one of those places that seems to be locked in time. The towers that have stood watch for hundreds of years make one feel like an explorer of old. Even getting to Ushguli from Tbilisi takes several days by car. It’s out there. But where?
That’s where. In the bulge of the border to the right sits Ushguli along the Patari Enguri River. There’s only about 200 people in all four villages that make up the valley. It’s under snow cover six months out of the year, where the road to Mesita — the nearest relatively major settlement — is impassable. It’s one of Europe’s highest-elevation continually-inhabited places.
Thankfully, getting there in the summer is easy. Ish.
The Road to Ushguli
To reach Ushguli, we got a couple seats in a jeep that was arranged by the owner of our hostel. We were joined by three Italians and, of course, our badass Georgian mountain man driver.
From the moment we left Mestia, the road zigzagged up and out of the valley. We crossed a rusty old bridge over the Mulkhra River that runs through Mestia, and then sped off up the valley. It didn’t take long to really start gaining elevation. In 30 minutes, Mestia wasn’t even visible, replaced by another, smaller village in the valley below. It had its own network of stone towers. Above it stood one of the Caucasus’s most unique mountains, Ushba.
See those two peaks right at the top? I’ve only seen one once before, on Nepal’s Machhapuchchhre (Fishtail in English). It’s one of Nepal’s most famous mountains, and for good reason — it’s not a commonly-occurring feature. There’s only a few hundred such mountains worldwide.
Ushba is, just like Fishtail, one of the most famous mountains in the Caucasus. Some call it the “Matterhorn of the Caucasus,” and it’s known in the climbing community as the most difficult ascent in the range.
We got back in the jeep and set off once more. Not long after this, the road went down the other side of the ridge we were on and entered into an extremely narrow valley. I think “canyon” is a more apt description. The dirt road hugged the side and wound on, 50 feet above a raging river. When the canyon opened and there was ground on both sides of the road, it switchbacked its way up one last hill, and then Ushguli’s valley was laid out before us.
Our jeep dropped us next to a small hotel in the largest village, Chvibiani. The five of us scattered into the narrow streets, and we set off to explore.
There’s a certain quality that is common to mountain villages such as these. It’s this vibe that permeates everything. It was there in Stepantsminda, in Kyrgyzstan’s Kyzyl-Oy, everywhere in Langtang, Nepal, and more. My brother, whose travels had taken him to villages in the Indian Himalayas, felt the same way. There’s just something about these places.
We wandered our way up the main street into the interior of the village, pausing to let horses cross between the buildings or when the village dogs would come to inspect us. It was quiet for the most part, except for the other visitors. The only sounds to be heard were the wind rustling through the wildflowers and faint hammering from some men renovating a house further down the hill.
Meadows extended down the mountain slopes into the gaps between the buildings, washing the village in flashes of green and yellow. What caught my eye the most, however, was the sheer amount of butterflies that moved about. In much of the village, they were white dots that made it seem as if it were sparking and shimmering. In other parts, they gathered in such high amounts in the streets that the ground itself seemed to be alive and moving, which was actually a little creepy. Nonetheless, I had a grand ol’ time with them.
Lamaria Church and the Valley Beyond
Sitting above Ushguli on a hill that overlooks everything is an ancient church called Lamaria. It’s been there since the 10th century. Even from in the village streets, Lamaria can still be seen above it all as it always has been. Places like this always represent small milestones for me. It takes at least a little work to get somewhere removed enough from everything that it connects you to those who came before. Having grown up in America where cities are a maximum of a few hundred years old, I’ve always been easily captured by these places. This church was already almost 800 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. That kind of thing still blows my mind, despite having been in a much more ancient part of the world for nearly a year.
The street turned into a footpath that wound around behind the hill. We followed the bend, Lamaria above us on the right, and the Patara Enguri River flowed past below us on the left. The Patara Enguri originates in that valley, just a bit further north than Ushguli, and empties into the Black Sea at a town called Anaklia.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate the significance of that river. It’s the majority of the Abkhazian border. Remember, that region we talked about earlier that has been the site of much of Georgia’s conflict? Since the outbreak of Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, both Georgia and Abkhazia have been keeping troops posted along the river. Russia has also maintained its own “peacekeeping” forces there. There’s only one bridge that acts as a legal crossing point between Georgia and Abkhazia along the river border.
Here, though, none of that conflict exists. It’s just a river. It’s the river that we followed to get to Mestia. It’s a manifestation of how removed Ushguli is. Georgia has had a tough run of things since the Soviet Union collapsed, and the residual conflicts have turned this river from a resource into a barrier.
Further up the valley, the path narrowed until it was just a bare strip winding along the river. Fields of flowers rolled away, running all the way to the tree-covered valley walls, which in turn gave way to ridges obscured in swirling clouds. A single white horse stood guard in its fields and watched us with careful eyes as we passed. It was here that I desperately wished for a tent and a week.
Circling Around and Above Ushguli
As much as I wanted to lay down in that valley for hours, we were constrained by the time we had agreed upon with the other passengers of our jeep. My brother had gone down the road to another village while I followed another road that circled the hill above Ushguli.
It formed a huge loop that enclosed a great big meadow, and wound through what might be considered the “outskirts.” Really, Ushguli isn’t big enough to have outskirts, but the density of buildings was significantly less. Only a few houses were on the road, and they were mostly guest houses. From that road, I could see down the valley we had traveled up to reach Ushguli, as well as the one that snaked up towards Shkara and the Bezingi Wall.
I made my way down the road, stopping to play with whatever dogs came my way. It eventually circled up again towards the main village, where I decided to make one more loop.
The shadows were getting longer and the sun going down. This was going to be the last small village I stopped in on this meandering voyage (except for Mestia). This was going to be the last time I was really immersed in mountains. It was to be the last of a lot of things. I wanted a place to take in the last vision of it all. There was a tower on a particularly high ridge at the intersection of the three valleys, so I aimed to get there.
My brother Peter was already ahead of me.
I climbed up the hill and sat on the ridge in front of the tower, where the four villages of Ushguli were sprawled out below us. The clouds were coming in, obscuring Shkara at the end of the valley. The wind lifted voices from the road up to us. The air was cool and the sun warm, and the clouds cast shadows on the hills in light and dark splotches that drifted along. Ushguli is a nice place. It’s becoming more and more of a destination, and I hope that it can keep the atmosphere that makes it special.