There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ushguli, To the Ends of the Earth: Part 13 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

When we arrived in Mestia in its high, isolated valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it felt like we had reached the ends of the earth. Of course we had not; the next day we drove to the village of Ushguli.

Our route across the Caucasus
Although Ushguli was only 45km further up the fast-flowing Mulkhra River, the drive took almost three hours as the tarmac runs out on the edge of Mestia. Alex, whose driving had been so aggressive on the main highways, babied the powerful BMW round the rocks, potholes and crevices. Whether he did this to protect the car or us I do not know, perhaps he wanted to make the four wheel drive BMW live up to its reputation as a Chelsea tractor. Toyota Celica minibuses, the locals’ vehicle of choice, bounced and rattled past, moving not at any great speed but considerably faster than we were.
The road runs out of tarmac outside Mestia
The road largely followed the river valley, though at this point it is more ravine than valley.

Along the Mulkhra gorge towards Ushguli
 At other times it found its own route, sometimes across alpine meadows, sometimes winding through ancient woodland. Occasionally we passed isolated farmhouses, or hamlets where all the buildings had their own watch towers, though many of them looked to be uninhabited and were rotting away.

Watchtower beside the River Mulkhra
Some farms, though were clearly going concerns and we watched one old man heading for the fields, his scythe slung over his shoulder. Around the house there were sheds for the cattle, and neatly tended rows of root vegetables, mainly potatoes.

Hamlet between Mestia and Ushguli
Ushguli is a line of four separate communes near the head of a valley. As in Mestia, each commune keeps its own name and identity though it would not be a difficult to kick a football from one commune to the next, at least downhill.

Ushguli from below
The population of the four communes together is just short of three hundred and at over 2,100m it claims to be the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe. The population, though, is dwindling and there are houses (and watch towers) for far more than three hundred. Presently there are enough children to support a school, but to get more than a basic education they need to leave the village. Once they have tasted the easier life down the valley many never return.
Ushguli from above

Ushguli is snow covered for six months of the year, but in the short summer it is the most beautiful place; the warm, clean air sparkles, the valley sides are green and the view of Mount Shkhara, at 5068m (16,627ft) the highest mountain in Georgia, is breath-taking, at least on those rare moments when the clouds part and allow you to see the peak.

Mt Shkhara from Lamaria Church, Ushguli
At the highest point of Ushguli the little 12th century Lamaria (Virgin Mary) Church stands guard over the village.

Lamaria Church, Ushguli
 From the outside there is little, apart from a row of bells by the wall, to suggest this small squat building is a church but inside the walls are covered in sumptuous frescoes. It is a wonderful old building with an air of great serenity.
Belltower (?), Lamaria Church, Ushguli
We paid our respects to the spirit of Ushguli and also to Dinara's parents who were responsible for much of the restoration work on the frescoes. We left when the young man looking after the church went for his lunch and only when he locked up could we see the remarkable door. In the graveyard below the church a fresh grave had been dug - there was to be a funeral that afternoon.

Door, Lamaria Church, Ushguli
On our way down to lunch we passed an elderly couple with a sledge. Did someone tell me that it would carry the late villager to their last resting place, or did I imagine that?

Sledge, Ushguli
We had lunch in a village house, one of the many in Ushguli which operate as guest houses or 'home restaurants'. Mist shrouded the valley and a few drops of rain fell as we crossed the concrete courtyard to the wooden house where a feast had been laid out for us. The ingredients for the salads - tomatoes, cucumbers and the inevitable aubergine with walnuts – had been brought up the valley, but the excellent flatbread had been baked on the premises, the wedges of strong crumbly cheese were made by our host from the milk of Ushguli cows, the fried potatoes came from the local plots and little fishes, some battered, others served in the walnut sauce that Georgians use for fish or any and every meat, came from the mountain streams. There were four for of us and, as usual, more food than ten could eat. When we were well and truly stuffed - and you must not considering standing up from a Georgian table before you have reached that state - our hosts apologised for a paucity of food. She was also catering for the funeral and had been very busy, she told us, gesturing at an adjoining table covered in industrial quantities of flatbread and what looked like chocolate based cakes.

Probably enough food, 'home restaurant', Ushguli

After lunch, to work off our excesses, we walked through the village and out alongside the Mulkhra. We followed the rough road for an hour or more as it headed towards the Glacier on Mt. Shkhara where the river rises. Ideally we would have walked all the way to the glacier but we lacked the time (and energy) for a 16km round trip.

Strolling out of Ushguli
 I realised rather belatedly that the rough roadway we were following was actually the continuation of the road we had driven up from Mestia. It heads towards the glacier for a while before turning south and descending to the villages of the lower Svaneti.

On the road to the Shkhara glacier
Above us, on fields far too steep for machinery, groups of three or four could be seen cutting hay, working downwards together, the rhythmical swung of their scythes sweeping through the long grass.

Haystacks on fields far too steep for machinery, near Ushguli
Despite the height the air was warm. For a moment a few large drops off rain splashed down on us, we broke out our waterproofs, but it ceased before we had time to put them on. The mountain top remained in mist the whole time, but we walked in hope that the next bend or rise would open up a full view of the base of the glacier. It never did, there was always another spur or ridge to block out view.

Sunshine on Mt Shkhara - just for a moment

The further we walked, the further we would have to walk back and I was beginning to think we had more than reached our limit when Dinara pulled out her phone, called Alex and asked him to drive down the road to meet us. We had previously been impressed by the way Dinara had managed to find a signal in rural locations, but we were now 3 or 4 km outside a village of 200 which was the biggest population centre for over 40km in any direction (and far more in most) – it is not like this at home*.

Lynne beside the Mulkhra, with Ushguli in the distance
We were also surprised that Alex was willing to risk the car on a road which in places dived steeply into muddy puddles of unknown depth, but it was not long before we stood on the top of a rise and saw the black bulk of the BMW picking its way daintily towards us.

Lynne and Dinara on the road to the glacier
Alex met us beside a bridge over the Mulkhra. Unimpressed with the approach to the river he decided to try the higher route on the way back but encountered one of those muddy puddles (hidden in the picture). He needed the four wheel drive to extricate himself, it was the only time he used it in our whole journey across Georgia.

Lynne on the bridge on the way out
Back in Ushguli we said goodbye to the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe with the hope that it would retain that title for a long time. The truth, though, is that life is hard here. I hope I am wrong, but within a decade, maybe two, I suspect that Ushguli will be deserted in winter; residents returning in summer to open up the guest houses and restaurants to serve the tourist who will continue to come to this high, wild and very handsome country.

Depopulated hamlet, near Ushguli
The journey back took another three hours. We knew we had been somewhere special when Alex asked if we minded him stopping to take some photographs. Drivers tend to be phlegmatic, been there, seen it all people, and when they get out a camera you know you are somewhere special.

Alex asked Dinara to take a picture of him on his phone - so I joined in, south of Ushguli
Alex and Dinara left us at the hotel. Alex had worked hard today and made the long ride as gentle as it could have been. It was also the first time we had seen the car looking dirty. We thought he had earned a rest but suspected (rightly as it turned out) that cleaning the car would be his first priority.

Alex and his dirty car, Mestia
After a shower we decided to forgo our already paid for hotel buffet and head down to the cafe/bar in town where we had a beer yesterday. This was when I discovered that the pullover I had intended to pack especially for this location was still at home. Despite the mist and raindrops at Ushguli it was a warm night and I decided to risk it. In the end we sat at a table on the pavement in complete comfort until long after dark.

We hit the clay pots, eating lobio - beans stewed in a clay pot - mushrooms with cheese cooked in a clay pot, and drinking a litre of' golden brown 'white' wine fermented in a big clay qvervi. We also had some chips, which had never been near a clay pot.
Mestia at night

We sat among a mixture of locals and tourists, while in the park opposite the children of Mestia played in the last of the day's light. It was a far better experience than sitting in the soulless hotel buffet. When it gets dark in the mountains, it gets very dark indeed and we were grateful for the few lights which lined our way across the river and up the hill to the hotel.

*A day’s walking in the Peak District is largely conducted out of range of phone masts, even through villages as large, but in no way as remote, as Ushguli.

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