When I was putting together my 10-day itinerary for Georgia, Svaneti was the one region I was most excited about visiting.
One of the main reasons for this was because – aside from the independent republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the latter of which it’s impossible to travel to at all from the Georgian side) – Svaneti is one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the country.
It’s also one of the most beautiful.
In all honesty, it’s not difficult to get as far as Mestia. Whilst the road from Kutaisi is not a good one (and therefore the 237 kilometre journey takes a good five an a half hours by minibus), getting there is simply a matter of turning up at the city’s bus station in time for the only daily service to Upper Svaneti’s ‘capital’ (which, incidentally, is at 9am) and securing a seat.
But travelling further than Mestia is a little more tricky. And for that reason – all the more rewarding.
Unfortunately, due to working a full-time job at home and having limited annual leave available with which to travel, we had little more than a day in which to do this. We chose to spend that day exploring Ushguli – a community of four villages inhabited by an ethnic group called the Svans that claims to be the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe.
(Side note: since publishing this article I’ve discovered that Khinalug in Azerbaijan may actually hold this title, hence amending the title of my post to “One of the Highest Permanently Inhabited Settlements in Europe.” If anyone can find a definitive answer, please let me know!)
Ushguli is nestled beneath the snow-covered massif of Mount Shkhara (5193m) – Georgia’s highest peak.
It’s been on the Unesco World Heritage List since 1996, and is characterised by its rather unique stone towers, which were used as defensive fortifications, familial living quarters, and personal treasuries. The towers date from between the 9th and the 12th centuries, and although in recent history families are choosing to move into more comfortable living spaces, there are many that are still in use today.
Getting to Ushguli
From what little information I could gather from the staff at Mestia’s unofficial bus station (who, incidentally, speak very little English), marshrutky (minibuses) to Ushguli do not run to a schedule; they just leave when they’re full. The price we were quoted was 35 GEL per person for a one-way ticket.
Not wanting to risk waiting around for hours or possibly not being able to get there at all (on the only free day we had available to explore the area), we decided to throw caution to the wind and arrange a taxi there and back. The driver would collect us from our guesthouse the following morning, make any requested photo stops on route, wait for us in Ushguli and then drive us home – for a total cost of 180 GEL (approximately £50).
Yes, that’s expensive by Georgian standards, but considering that we were on such a tight schedule and wanted to maximise the time we had available to explore Ushguli, it was an expense we were prepared to cover for the convenience and ease of making the trip. It was also only 40 GEL more than the marshrutka would’ve been for the two of us.
The journey to Ushguli
Knowing what I did about the state of the roads between Mestia and Ushguli, I was a little concerned to discover that our taxi was not, in fact, a 4 x 4 vehicle, and didn’t have off-road tyres or four-wheel drive. It was simply an ordinary saloon car; one that was far better suited to well-surfaced tarmac roads than pot-hole laden dirt tracks.
However, I trusted that our driver knew the roads well, and also knew what his vehicle was and wasn’t capable of. Or maybe he just needed the money?
He seemed friendly enough though, despite only speaking about 10 words of English, and willingly obliged every time we asked him to stop.
As we began our journey from Mestia, the roads initially seemed to be in reasonably good condition. But we hadn’t travelled far before we realised exactly why the roads thus far were as good as they had been: construction work had begun on improving the entire stretch of road between Mestia and Ughguli, but it was a long and laborious process that would potentially take years to complete, and less than 5% of it had already been done.
So, what time wasn’t spent manoeuvring our way around construction vehicles or waiting while they cleared the passageway ahead was spent tentatively navigating the contours of the lumpy, rocky, mud and pot-hole laden terrain beneath us – with zero suspension.
Still, it made for a fun ride as far as we as passengers were concerned, and our driver didn’t seem too bothered about the apparent damage that was being done to the undercarriage of his vehicle.
Arrival into Ushguli
We arrived into Ushguli around 11am (it had been just under a three-hour run with stops), and were immediately joined by a number of hikers arriving on foot. If you have time it’s possible to make the 4-day hike from Mestia to Ushguli, stopping off at the villages of Chvabiani, Zhabeshi, Adishi, Iprali, and Davberi.
There’s no need to bring camping equipment because there are a small selection of guesthouses that provide overnight accommodation (including breakfast) to hikers – some of which even appear on booking.com.
Things to do in Ushguli
If you’re not hiking, your choice of activities in Ushguli will be somewhat limited. But, that said, we still managed to spend around five and a half hours simply wandering around this unique community of farming villages that’s located 2100 metres above sea level and – until the early 2000s – was isolated by an annual six-month winter.
If you’re not happy to simply do the same, here are a few things you can add to your itinerary:
Make the eight-kilometre hike up to the foot of the Shkhara Glacier
The roundtrip takes around six hours, and passes through some spectacular scenery. You gain approximately 500 metres of elevation during the hike, bringing you up to 2600 metres. Considering that the symptoms of altitude sickness can start to show once you get above 2500 metres, make sure you don’t rush the climb (ascending at speed is one of the causes of altitude sickness) and that you’re aware of the symptoms you may experience.
That said, it’s unlikely you’ll experience anything more than very minor symptoms (if any) at altitudes lower than 3500 metres. You can read about the first time I hiked to over 4000 metres here.
Visit Ushguli’s Ethnographic Museum
It’s housed inside one of the Svan towers in Chazhashi (admission 5 GEL). Opening times are listed as 10:00-18:00 hours Tuesday-Sunday, but it didn’t appear to be open when we visited.
Take a short walk to the 12th century Lamaria Church
Lamaria Church is situated at one end of Ushguli, on a lonely hill looking up the valley to Mount Shkhara. Local residents believe that it was under this church that Queen Tamara, who was a central figure in Svans’ history, was buried.
Take a horse ride for 50 GEL
You’ll find lots of children leading horses around the villages, and if you fancy it you can take a ride on one. If you can justify the expense, it’s a great way of soaking up your surroundings whilst avoiding all the cow manure underfoot.
Eating in Ushguli
You may want to bring your lunch with you because there are no shops in Ushguli and we only found one restaurant – Cafe Koshki. That said, it’s quite a nice spot to take a break and there’s a reasonably extensive menu of local dishes to choose from. I’ve no idea what the people on the table next to us ordered (they appeared to be a small party of international tourists and a local guide), but it looked like a wonderful spread of Georgian salads and all of the following:
- Tashmijabi (potato mashed with local cheese – usually wonderfully stringy!)
- Chvishtari (pan fried corn bread with cheese inside)
- Fetvraal (a Georgian bread loaf made with millet flour and filled with – yes, you’ve guessed it: cheese!)
We weren’t very hungry after our huge breakfast, so we shared a small salad and some chvishtari – which was actually really nice. But then, I do have a bit of an unhealthy cheese obsession; anything containing cheese is pretty good in my book.
Inside the cafe you’ll find a traditional Svan man’s chair, hand-carved with the Nijaradze family’s history and all sorts of related motifs. I waited for an Asian family to take it in turns posing for photos on said chair in order to snap a shot of it. To be fair, it was pretty impressive – and huge!
Accommodation in Ushguli
If you intend to do any hiking in the area (even if it’s only a day hike to the foot of the Shkhara Glacier and back), you’ll probably need to factor in an overnight stay in Ushguli. The good news is that there are lots of guesthouses to choose from; 25 alone appear on booking.com.
Prices start from £7 per night for a double room. You’re not going to get anything luxurious here, but you will get a clean, comfortable room with slightly dubious (read: very old fashioned) furnishings and decor, and (often) an inclusive breakfast.Check all Ushguli accommodation availability and prices here
If you’d prefer to stay in Mestia and make a day trip to Ushguli (like we did) then I can thoroughly recommend the place we stayed at. German-Georgian owned Bapsha is a newly-constructed bright, modern and airy guesthouse located slightly uphill from Mestia’s main street.
The inclusive breakfast every morning is fantastic, and the staff will even provide it at an earlier time than advertised if you have a bus to catch. We also really appreciated that the lady at reception (I think her name was Tamara) offered to book us a spot on the marshrutka to Kutaisi and to organise collection from the guest house. She also arranged our taxi to Ushguli and back.
We actually originally booked a downstairs room for one night, but when we had to change our plans we needed an additional night and none of the budget ones were available, so we booked an upstairs one with balcony (which offered some lovely views). Tamara let us stay in the more expensive room for the second night, at no additional cost.Check availability and prices at Bapsha Guesthouse here
Overall impressions of Ushguli
Visiting Ushguli is a unique experience you won’t find anywhere else in Europe. It’s a place where – due to its isolated location – many ancient Svanetian religious and cultural traditions remain intact; a place where you’ll find people still living a traditional farming life – using an ox and plough, living off the land, harvesting potatoes and raising horses.
However, judging by the number of guesthouses popping up all over town (currently there are about 40 in a community whose population – according to the latest Lonely Planet guide – is only 290) and the improvements that are being made to the road from Mestia, I don’t imagine that Ushguli will stay this way for much longer.
For now though, it’s a beautiful, remote and unique part of the world and you should definitely come and have a look around before everyone else does.
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