My hands tingled in Ushguli. Technically, this was due to the altitude: Ushguli is said to be the highest permanently inhabited location in Europe. Though these tingly fingers and my shortness of breath seemed more like symptoms of astonishment than of altitude sickness.
Ushguli is made up of four villages strung together in the mountains of the Svaneti region of Georgia. These are not cutesy villages suitable for a afternoon of fairy tale ambiance. These villages are a sort of living time-space continuum, where grandma has a cell phone and simultaneously lives the lifestyle of her medieval ancestors, or even her pre-historic ancestors. The people who live here are Svan, an ethnic subgroup with their own unwritten language (and gorgeous haunting music). Ushguli’s is quite isolated, made inaccessible by heavy snow much of the year. The weather is harsh and moody. Also, there’s mud.
Okay so “mud” is a euphemism. Ushguli is full of manure. If you want to visit (and I encourage you to do so) you’ll need to accept that you’ll be ankle deep in a mélange of livestock excrement. As a small-town bred former tomboy, I reverted to my upbringing and was just fine with it. HOB on the other hand, minced around on his tip toes moaning and groaning.
The first wheel came to Ushguli in 1935. Until then, these sleds were well suited to move through snow and mud.
Even The Infamous Blue Traveling Poncho can’t stand up to mud of Ushguli.
These thousand year old towers were used as defense against invader and blood feuds.
I especially enjoyed walking about and looking at the varieties of towers. This one had six “eyes” in the tower’s cap.
Animals also lived inside the towers, on the first floor.
These days the residents of Ushguli seem to mostly be living in stacked shale and stone houses with wooden or tin roofs.
We stayed in a guest house at the top of the upper most village with a German couple who came up with us in a jeep. The room was clean but freezing cold. Svan people apparently don’t heat their houses much—they must be tough as nails. We saw elderly residents walking about without coats not seeming to notice the sleet pelting their heads.
Ushguli is a great place to remember how, until recently, most humans lived closely with animals.
Oh hi there!
I like your beard!
This knock-kneed newborn charmed our muddy socks off.
Making friends in Ushguli.
Did I mention the geography in Ushguli is astonishing? You can actually walk to a glacier in Ushguli. We didn’t, mostly because I wanted to spend more time looking at the architecture, but also because I was afraid of the mountain dogs, which are bred to be fierce protectors of sheep.
Ushguli is one of those culturally unique places whose specialness is maintained by it’s inaccessibility. Several people told us that the residents of these villages relish their isolation. They don’t want the road to their region improved because they like to discourage mass tourism. It’s not that they don’t want tourists, but they need to be in control of the situation. If you visit, bear in mind you won’t have access to many tourist amenities. Pack food and layered clothing you can adjust along with the weather. Naturally, you should have waterproof shoes for the mud.
And altitude medicine for the tingling hands and the inevitable astonishment.
How we got to Ushguli: shared a jeep from Mestia with some other travelers.
Where we slept: Guesthouse Kachari. Price: €24 for a double. Recommended: well, bring warm pajamas.